Picture This: New Orleans
Mary Ellen Marks Last Assignment
International Center of Photography
August 1 – September 27, 2015
There was no way to tell Mary Ellen Mark only had four weeks left to live when she embarked on her last assignment, photographing the recovery efforts in New Orleans for the tenth anniversary of Katrina. It was spring and she’d been sent by CNN, who assigned a videography team to work behind her. The video they produced captures Mark on set, her thin wiry frame and intense eyes, holding her medium-format camera as she charms subjects who initially want nothing to do with her or CNN. The video and a selection of Mark’s black-and-white photographs from New Orleans—there are fourteen—comprise the primary body of this powerful exhibition. Additionally, there is a slide show presenting pictures taken by students Mark taught over the years and a micro-exhibition of images that span her life in photography. She died in May; she was seventy-five years old.
Mark was a master of portraiture, and her bailiwick was on the fringes of society. In this sense it is perfectly fitting that her last assignment was in New Orleans, where the wounds left by the hurricane are still wide open for many of those who lived through it. She doesn’t take pictures of the landscape, and she avoids the kind of imagery that might aestheticize the devastation. Instead, she focuses on the survivors, and she gets so close that when you view her pictures you feel the nearness of her lens. It also means that her subjects tend to fill the camera’s frame, and because of the scale of her prints—many are quite large—these subjects take on a degree of majesty, even if shaded by tragedy.
Mark’s portrait of Robert Green exemplifies these characteristics. Titled Robert Green Selling T-Shirts (2015), the large black-and-white photograph captures Green seated, his sturdy hands on his knees, with an American flag draped around his shoulders. He’s wearing a t-shirt—the same variety he is selling—that depicts him standing tall with the flag blowing like a cape behind him. The t-shirt’s caption reads, “I’ll fly away,” though Green looks as sturdy as a statue in Mark’s picture. His head is cocked slightly to the side, his mouth drawn down at the edges—this man has the composure of an old judge who’s seen too much.
There is a sense of solidarity that courses through this body of work like an electrical current. In one picture a mother’s hands rest on her children’s shoulders. In another, two young members of the Running Bear Boxing Club stand with their arms around one another. Elsewhere, three cousins hold hands as they gaze into Mark’s camera. In all these images body language communicates the unity of purpose that the survivors share. None of them smile. Instead they stare down the camera with the kind of patient defiance one comes to know after enduring long spells of unyielding hardship.
A fact of Katrina that is not often noted: 15,000 pets were rescued after the storm and many were never claimed. Mark’s picture Helen Hester and Chaz at City Park represents one story of warmth and fellowship in this otherwise grim statistic. The caption explains that Hester volunteered at the SPCA in the aftermath of Katrina, and that she adopted a dog named Chaz after months of re-acclimating him to human interaction. In the photograph they are perched on a picnic table, Chaz’s head folded under Hester’s chin. She holds one hand over her heart while the other strokes Chaz’s blond coat. It’s a solemn image full of compassion, and Mark has arranged the sitting so that the sunlight falls on Hester’s wavy hair and makes it glow like a halo. She could be a modern-day incarnation of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
In her portraits Mark captures the relationships that are the sinews of a living community. This extends beyond familial bonds and friendships to the connections people have with certain places, be it a home, a park, a makeshift gym, or an athletic field. Of course, Katrina ravaged many of these places, but the efforts to rebuild have meant reinvesting these places with the sweat equity of the storm’s survivors, and that strengthens the bond of stewardship immensely. Beneath layers of dignity built on endurance and defiance, there hums the quiet tone of pride that comes from the knowledge that you’ve made something a little better than it was. This tone rings softly through Mark’s New Orleans series, and it will likely echo on in her legacy.
CHARLES SCHULTZ is a writer based in New York City.