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Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and Moment
Aperture Foundation
The Photography Workshop Series

It is an impossible task to convert the experience of learning from an accomplished talent in person into book form.

The Aperture Foundation deserves credit for attempting to do so with The Photography Workshop Series (which, as of the end of 2022 consisted of seven books). But, if one were to judge the books on how well they achieve the stated goal of giving readers the same experience that they would receive if they attended a workshop in person, the books would either have to be ruled as failures or the workshops would have to be rated as expensive disappointments.

Fortunately, there is no need to judge this series on that basis.
Instead, I would look at the books as inexpensive, but nicely printed mini-portfolios of the photographers’ own works as curated by the photographers themselves, with extended commentary accompanying the photographs.

Mary Ellen Mark: Amanda and her cousin Amy.

Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment, is the artist I am most familiar with and I have been an admirer of her work since I first discovered her in college in the 1970s.

I should clarify that while Aperture may not have achieved quite the effect they were striving for; the books are certainly not a disappointment. The photographers chosen for the series so far are all talented teachers as well as practitioners and there are lessons to be learned in each volume.

Mary Ellen Mark was the kind of photojournalist that I would like to be. Her images show a connection to her subjects, whether those subjects were Hollywood stars, a homeless family or patients in a mental hospital. At the same time, they are powerfully composed with an artist’s eye, yet never contrived.

Mary Ellen Mark: Laurie in the Bathtub, Ward 81

There is a certain similarity to Diane Arbus. But, while an Arbus image can make me feel voyeuristic and uncomfortable, Mark’s work tends to offer me the illusion that I have been pulled me into the subject’s world and the three of us – subject, photographer and viewer – are for a moment sharing some private connection.

Mark’s text provides insights and background on the photographs, and gives us a window into her thoughts about the images and the subjects. Each section leads with an admonition such as “Wait for the Moment,” “Work with the Space” and “Stay Curious.” The text then expands on that point although at times the connection between the text and the section title are fairly weak.

No matter though, the real key here is the opportunity to see some of Mark’s best work and read her thoughts and comments that help put the work into context.

Buy on Amazon.