On ‘Man and Beast’ by Mary Ellen Mark

01SEHGAL1-master495By Parul Sehgal, New York Times Book Review, May 30, 2014

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.

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The Doors of Perception: PW Talks with Errol Morris

By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly Jul 08, 2011

The celebrated director of such films as The Thin Blue Line and the Oscar-winning The Fog of War investigates some of photography’s most iconic, enduring, and mysterious images in Believing Is Seeing from Penguin Press.

Is it true you were once a private eye? Has it influenced how you look at the truth? 

It’s true I worked as a detective, but I think the desire to investigate things… either you have it or you don’t. It’s the Dupin or the Sherlock Holmes in me. Almost all of my work has been about this underlying belief that we can figure things out. And every photograph is a mystery. Photographs rip a swatch from the fabric of reality. They decontextualize. But they’re still connected to the world, and they tell two stories: one about our belief about images, but also about one moment in history, of something happening at one moment in front of one particular lens. At its heart, this is a romantic book. To try to figure out—what was that world recorded by James Fenton? Or the world of Amos Humiston and the photograph found in his hands on the battlefield at Gettysburg?

Many of these stories first appeared on your blog at the New York Times. When did you realize you had a book on your hands?

When I realized I could actually write. The first big piece I did was on the James Fenton photographs of the Crimean War. You wouldn’t imagine that it would be the kind of subject matter that would attract a lot of attention, but it did. The piece—and the book—is about photographs as a way of entering history through something very specific. If you pick up any one of the hundreds of histories of the Crimean War, invariably it will start off with a description of the historical antecedents and gradually and chronologically you will enter in the story. Same with biography; you open one and you’re reading about someone’s maternal grandparents. What a photograph allows you to do is to enter history in the middle of everything. As I imagine it, you walk into the photographs and start looking around. That’s the beginning of a mystery.

It was your investigation into Fenton’s photographs—and your team’s attempt to establish what time they were taken by analyzing every stone and shadow—that first made the Crimean War real to me, that persuaded me that it actually happened. So as you say, photographs seem to make history not only specific but material. 

We’re connected through particulars—that’s really our experience of being alive. When I ended up in Crimea, I had a map from 1855 with me. I was standing on a hill that the map called Snail Hill. I looked down, and there were little snails all over the place. Later I read a soldier’s account of being in one of the trenches on Snail Hill, and he was surrounded by all of the little snails. I felt suddenly connected to history, and connected through particulars, through the odd details.

You’re rare in that unlike most people who have written a great deal about photography, you’ve actually worked extensively with cameras. Photography isn’t abstract to you. Has this influenced how you’d read, say, Sontag or Barthes? 

I know that Sontag’s essay on the Abu Ghraib photos in the New York Times magazine influenced me in so many ways, although I didn’t agree with her conclusions. What she didn’t do—and what I have tried to do—is accept that photographs are never a given. We may think we know what a photograph means, we may think we know what it’s of, but we don’t. To me the Abu Ghraib photos are a perfect example of a kind of mystery. What was going on? Were they all taken for the same reasons? Who were the people that took them? Whenever you look at a photograph, you’re looking at what is no longer there. The photograph is there, but what was photographed is transient, is gone. Proust had his madeleines. I have my photographs.

The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence

By Susie Linfield (University of Chicago)

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, December 2010

The girl in the photograph wears her black hair tucked behind her ears. Her part is slightly crooked, and there is a small mole low on her throat, right above the top button of her blouse. She might be anywhere between five and ten years old. She’s been posed against a wall or a screen. Stripped of its context, this is a lovely but unremarkable portrait of a small, serious looking girl, an image that’s easy to look at and easy to forget.

But let’s restore the context and look again. Pol Pot liked to have his prisoners photographed. Like the fourteen thousand or so others imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge’s “torture center,” this girl slept shackled to the floor or wall, was likely tortured, photographed, and eventually shot—or bludgeoned to death, if the price of ammunition was high that year.

Is there a “right” way to respond—intellectually, emotionally, aesthetically—to such an image? Do we honor her by looking at her photograph or by refusing to? If we look, can we learn anything about how she lived and why she died? What if we can’t help but notice her beauty—or worse, the inadvertent beauty of the snapshot itself? What does that say about us—or photography? Are these considerations offensive: Do we have a right to make sophistries out of real suffering?

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