Man and Beast: Photographs from Mexico and India
It’s no slight to the reputation or artistry of Mary Ellen Mark to say that her photographs of animals, carnival workers and children make me think about other photographers’ images of animals, carnival workers and children. Mark has her own style, or styles: she can be funny, haunting, and confrontational. In some images, she is more interested in space or perspective than in human emotion. She does not evoke the same kind of spookiness that Diane Arbus does, though both of them like to make sure our faces are mushed right up to the thin lens separating us from harsh, eerie imagery (in Mark’s case of children who contort their bodies for a living or human dwarves who dress up as apes). Mark’s photo of a dog astride a saddle astride a donkey—by the way, that dog has an expression that says, “Oh, hi – I’m sitting on top of this donkey. Did you pick up the dry cleaning like you said you would?”—recalls the lackadaisical wit of some of Elliott Erwitt’s photos. ere are other images by Mark that echo the agility that you feel Garry Winogrand had to have had in spades to have been able to capture the emotion that he did, that feeling that an artist is at home in their medium and knows exactly what they’re about.
To really be successful, art that references some other, previous art must speak to two audiences:the viewers who get the reference and those who don’t know there’s anything to get. Reference is fun for a viewer because it’s a glimpse into a conversation between artists who are talking through time, and across distance, gesticulating between themselves, honoring one another and sometimes one-upping each other. I’m not convinced that Mark, in her new book Man and Beast: Photographs from Mexico and India and in the exhibition at the Wittli Collections in San Marcos of the same material, is out to dazzle us with her allusions to photographers she admires.
From the relatively rare journalistic evidence (Mark doesn’t appear to relish being quizzed about her working methods), she focuses more on fostering a meaningful relationship with the people and animals she captures than on making a tip of the hat to her artistic forebears. There is another image in Man and Beast of two animals acting out a human scene, this one of a monkey riding a donkey. Do you even need to know that a photographer named Elliott Erwitt once existed to enjoy Mark’s photography? You don’t, but that doesn’t mean a conversation between artists isn’t taking place.
“There its a primal force I sense in the people and their culture that binds India and Mexico”- Mary Ellen Mark
If the images in Man and Beast don’t have to be read as allusion, Mark, who has contributed to Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, published her first photography book in 1974, and has received three NEA fellowships, must be aware that it’s already a crowded field any book of photography about the circus, animals and children enters the moment it’s published. One of the things that makes Mark’s work stand apart is how relentless the gaze of her subjects staring back at her, and us, is. There are people and animals in her black-and-white images that have occluded or shy gazes, but for the most part, Mark prefers subjects who directly telegraph their emotions. On a spread of two images in her book, Mark situates two boys from India on the left-hand page and two women holding hands at the Carnaval in Zaachila, Mexico in 2006 on the other side of the spread. The clearly poor boys are at the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, one looking proud, and the other wearing a mask (though visible through the mask are his sad eyes). In the other photo, one of the Mexican women lowers the mask she’s wearing to the carnival just enough so we can see her questioning expression: Why do you want to take my photo, she seems to ask. Of course, the fact that she lets the mask down at all blunts her defiance.
“Mark has her own style, or styles: she can be funny, haunting, and conversational.”
Mark writes in a short opening statement in Man and Beast that there is a “primal force I sense in the people and their culture that binds” India and Mexico in her mind. People in those places have “a more fundamental and intimate” relationship to animals, she says. Mark ventures to the poor places in those countries, where outsiders and the neglected gather. The people there, and the animals, let her in. There are echoes of other photographers in Man and Beast but if you’re willing to engage with the gazes her subjects throw right back at you, the book and the exhibition are experiences that not only are entirely of Mark’s making but actively make you a part of them too.