It has been many years since Mary Ellen Mark, whom many consider to be an American master of photography, has visited Miami. Her last trip was several decades ago, a period she recalls being much different from what it is today.
“I photographed South Beach before it was trendy, when all the old people were living here. It was trendy but in a different way.”
Thursday, she will speak at the University of Miami as part of the Lowe Art Museum’s Newman Lecture Series. Arnold Newman, one of the preeminent photographers of the 20th century, studied at the University of Miami for two years before dropping out. He developed the Arnold and Augusta Newman Trust to allow the University of Miami to invite prolific photographers to discuss their work with students and the community at large.
As plans for the lecture series began to be formed, a list of prominent photographers whom faculty and staff hoped would come to discuss their work was developed; Mark was among the top choices. She was chosen particularly for the influence she has had on documentary photography and her fearlessness when it comes to her assignments.
“I hope that when she talks about the work [she says] how much of a risk it was to do all of those projects and the students understand that taking risks and being fearless is really what separates the average from the excellent,” said Thomas Lopez, a University of Miami photography teacher who helped coordinate Mark’s lecture.
Over the span of her illustrious career as a documentary photographer, Mark has captured some of the most iconic and provocative images of the past 50 years, which are mostly intimate portraits shot primarily in black and white. She has been one of the leading photographers of women’s issues, having photographed female patients at a women’s psychiatric ward in Oregon and female prostitutes in Bombay. More recently, Mark has been working on photographing pediatric health care around the world, which she thinks has produced some of her best work yet. Despite her prominence, she has refused to rest on her laurels.
“I feel I am still learning and trying to get better. It’s true that you’re only as good as the last thing you do. I’m still drawn to powerful imagery.”
Despite her hectic schedule traveling around the world, she has made a commitment to teaching and fostering young documentary photographers, saying it is vital “for the world to see great young people’s work” because of the difficulty of them finding an audience.
"It’s so difficult now because there’s no outlet for works dealing with reality and I’m interested in reality.”
Maggie Steber, former Miami Herald director of photography and current UM lecturer, says it’s important for students to see her work because it will expand their worldview and inspire them to pursue more serious subjects in their photography.
“I would hope that these very powerful images by Mary Ellen will entice them to be curious about things outside of their iPhones,” Steber said.
Perhaps the most important lesson Mark hopes to teach aspiring photographers attending the lecture is to be true to yourself.
"Given the choices I had in my life and in my career, I could have gone in a much different direction but you should you go in the direction you’re driven to go in and meant to go in.”