Over the last 50 years, Mary Ellen Mark has photographed twins, clowns, patients in a mental hospital, Ku Klux Klan members and Liza Minnelli. She likes to look at people who are used to being looked at, and she uses her camera like Wonder Woman’s golden lasso — as a truth-telling device that peels performance from personality. In one of her most famous photographs, “Tiny” (1983), a Seattle street kid poses in her Halloween costume: a little black dress, little black gloves and a hat with a netted veil. It’s the daintiness of Tiny’s dress combined with her defiance that gives the photograph its charge. Tough Tiny looks afraid.
Mark has been shooting in Mexico and India since the 1960s, and in “Man and Beast,” she brings together her black-and-white photographs into an affectionate, annoying, stubbornly beautiful book. The new collection includes some of her most famous images and many of her obsessions — girls made up to look like grown women, disembodied faces rising out of water. There is that fondness for photographing twins, clowns and cross-dressers that has earned her inevitable comparisons with Diane Arbus, but while Arbus pounced on flaws and eccentricities with carnivorous delight, Mark’s mission is gentler. “I didn’t want to use them. I wanted them to use me,” she has said of her subjects. She’s known for her long, intimate relationships with the people she photographs. She’s still in touch with Tiny.
Mark does her Mexican and Indian subjects a disservice, however, by lumping together their photos without captions or real explanation. She writes only that “both countries overwhelm my senses,” that “there is a primal force I sense in the people and their culture.” It’s disappointing to see this photographer so alert to visual cliché indulge in exoticism, but a breezy dismissal of political and historical context has always been a troublesome strain in Mark’s work. She once said “Falkland Road,” her 1981 book on Mumbai’s sex workers, was “meant almost as a metaphor for entrapment, for how difficult it is to be a woman.” But what could be less metaphorical than those iron cages the women were housed and displayed in? To give the viewer a point of entry, she risks trivializing not only the suffering of others, but also the power of her photographs.
For the photographs are wise, warm and complicated. Like Helen Levitt, Mark is fascinated by the inner lives of children, but rather than capturing their play, their little dramas, she has them sit for immensely dignified portraits. And in “Man and Beast,” she extends that dignity to the world of animals.
Mark wants to highlight “the anthropomorphic quality of animals, and the animalistic quality of man.” This often takes the form of obvious juxtapositions, for example, children posing with puppies to underscore their own smallness and vulnerability. But some images are haunting — a runaway bear wearing a small frock and collar being dragged back to the circus with a chain. Others correct misperceptions. Far from showing ill treatment, many of the photographs of Indian circuses emphasize the bonds between the animals and their caretakers. An elephant balancing on one leg already makes for a winning image, but what makes this a great photograph is the inclusion of the handler at the very fringe of the frame, watching the elephant with a mixture of pride and anxiety. He holds out one hand slightly, absurdly, as if to say, “I’ll catch you.”
The best images in “Man and Beast” are full of this sly humor. The book begins and ends with the same shot. An Indian king and his dog walk along a marble terrace. Their backs are to us; we cannot see their faces. The man is short and stout and cumbrous — an ungainly maharajah in midstride. But the dog trailing him is a beauty, sleek and huge as a panther. Who, the photograph asks us, is the aristocrat?