Almost a year ago today, I was asked to contribute a few thoughts for a forthcoming—now passed—exhibit of "vintage" prints from the original edition of Mary Ellen Mark's Ward 81 at the John McWhinnie Gallery at Glenn Horowitz Books. In 1977, I worked as a freelance printer for Mary Ellen, initially hired to make the prints, which eventually were used for making the first edition of the book and for exhibitions. The thoughts further down the page come mostly from that invitation to recall this work of thirty years ago.
The first edition of Ward 81. Published by Simon and Schuster, 1979.
For the past ten years, I have written book reviews on John Cohen, Rosalind Solomon, and Helen Levitt and wrote a six thousand word introduction for my good friend, Toby Old's book, Times Squared. I even wrote a bio of Lewis Hine for an encyclopedia. During this time Mary Ellen Mark published at least four books that I can think of (without the benefit of Google), maybe more. I am only too happy to get free books, but since I am not too greedy, and when push comes to shove, I have limited shelf space, I never requested any of Mary Ellen's books for review, recusing myself. (Though I did put up hard cash for more than one of them, just another customer. Could it be that the best review is cash on the barrelhead?)
Well, there really is no "then." "Then" is a fictive space invented by writers who pretend that then is now (Historians, Gibbon, etc. not factored). I am a photographer, so I know that now is now and then was then, but when I take Ward 81 off the shelf—the shelf of special books—and open it, memories do come back. The memories are odd, some having to do with my personal life, or life out in the larger world, but also memories of these women who I knew in a very personal way (once removed from Mary Ellen's) and came to care for. I wanted these crazy ladies to look their best, not just for Mary Ellen, but also for their own intrinsic human worth. They (and we) deserve that. I could not make those crazy ladies look good—look humanly and humanely attractive—if I had not had those negatives to interpret as Mary Ellen wished. It was then, and is now, her vision and her vision at best is not merely the ability to make good photographs, but to make photographs that deserve and need to be looked at more than once, for it is on repeated viewings that more is revealed as the secrets become more impenetrable.
Ward 81 by Mary Ellen Mark. Published by Damiani, 2008.
Mary Ellen Mark has the rare ability to make her empathy visible. I believe, but cannot prove, that this is rooted in how she connects to her subjects. The photographic artifact is proof of that connection. This is not rooted in photographic skill or artistry—Avedon did not have it, nor does Penn, and I very much admire their work. Robert Bergman does, as did Diane Arbus.
Working for Mary Ellen was a rich experience on at least two levels: First, by expecting serious attention to the work at hand she made me a better printer (and a better photographer). Second is the not insignificant pleasure of working with good photographs.
Without words, pictures for me are fictions—the photograph is just one little corner of fiction-making. The only fiction in a photograph worth a hill of beans is the fiction of the real. The best documentary photographers have the most difficult job—juggling fiction and social fact. Those who succeed all make good pictures, but by different means. Mary Ellen Mark (I say from working with the negatives in the dark, knowing the not quites, the almosts, the terrific pictures which just don't make the cut) like few other photographers save for Lewis Hine or on her best of days, Dorthea Lange, is a photographer who through artistry and empathy creates connections between subject and viewer. While Mary Ellen did this prior to Ward 81, I think it is this body of work that first showed this rare quality in a sustained way.
The new edition of Ward 81. Published by Damiani, 2008.
The new edition's trim size is about a half inch taller and wider than the 1979 edition. The sequence is identical, but the current edition adds a selection of ten photographs from the many hundreds edited from the final sequence. Though this selection adds nothing necessary to the eighty-six photos in the main body of the book, it is useful for the viewer in opening the window on the process of sequencing and bookmaking.
I should not comment on the differences in the reproduction and the look of the photographs. Hey, I do have a dog in this race! Well, my dog is old, and all bets are down. The prints I made in 1977 were on Agfa Pogtriga. Fortunately for me, and Mary Ellen, 1977 was the last year Agfa made good Portriga.
Sid Rappaport's printing of the '79 edition (Simon and Schuster) is faithful in spirit to my prints (if a bit muddy in dark areas). "My" prints were rightfully Mary Ellen's idea of how they should look. Materials and the taste of time changes. Chuck Kelton's prints for the new edition are more open, more in keeping with current notions of B&W printing. I don't know if the reproductions in the current edition are as fair to Kelton as Rappaport was to me, but having seen enough of Kelton's prints, I doubt it. The Kelton prints I have seen are luminous, Damiani's reproductions are adequate, lacking not only the feel of the first edition, but also lacking the subtle luminousness of Kelton's prints.
That said, given the scarcity of the first edition, the new edition is welcome for the generation of Mary Ellen Mark's appreciators since 1979 and for older viewers who missed getting it the first time.
Richard Gordon is a photographer who lives in California. His photographs and artist's books are in museum and library special collections from sea to shining see. Four prints from his recently completed book project, American Surveillance, will be in SFMOMA's surveillance and voyeurism exhibit in 2009. He is one of five photographer's in the 'Camera as Subject Matter' travelling exhibition.