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Masters of Photography

How to Shoot Like Mary Ellen Mark

As a photographer who worked with people on the fringes of society, Mary Ellen Mark can show you how to create intuitive and emotional images with real impact.

1. Work in black & white

© Mary Ellen Mark

For a photographer working with such powerful themes and emotions, it seems obvious that Mary Ellen Mark would shoot in black & white. Look at the shot above and consider if it would have the same impact in colour. It’s unlikely it would. Black & white is a way of stripping down an image to its most basic elements. It gives us room to dream and to feel. When we look at Mary Ellen Mark’s images, we can allow ourselves to become absorbed.

2. Make sure each and every frame stands out

© Mary Ellen Mark

Look at this image. What will be immediately apparent is that the shot is so masterfully composed that, even if it is extracted from a larger series, it can easily function a single image that encapsulates everything you need to know about the story. Compare her images to, say, the paintings of Caravaggio. Each image is a single frame that communicates a narrative through its elements – the lighting, the framing, the composition, and so on. Even if you’re working with a series of images, give each and every frame your undivided attention. Make single images that stand out.

3. Make work that means something

© Mary Ellen Mark

When Mary Ellen Mark talked to Salon magazine in 2000, she described her work as being about people who were ‘away from mainstream society and toward its more interesting, often troubled fringes’. Children would often feature in her work, as would sex workers, individuals afflicted by mental health issues and those ‘outside the borders of society’. That’s not to say you have to go out of your way to find people who fit into these descriptions, but there’s something to be said for seeking people out who have a little something different to offer. It’s up to you how you interpret that ‘something different’.

4. Spend time with your subject

© Mary Ellen Mark

Once you find your subject, it’s vital that you actually spend time getting to know them. Peeling back the layers takes time and commitment. Photography, portraiture in particular, is about trust. Going in all guns blazing means your subject will put up barriers that you will find difficult to break down. What makes Mary Ellen Mark’s images so emotionally raw is that her subjects felt comfortable in her company. As with any relationship, trust takes time to build.

5. Work hard to get your framing and composition right in camera

© Mary Ellen Mark

One of the key things that Mary Ellen Mark always insisted on was that you must get as much right in camera as possible. That means learning to crop your images in camera, rather than relying on the crop tool in Photoshop. When you learn to develop your instincts, you become a more intuitive photographer and one that saves themselves plenty of time later on when it comes to reviewing and editing your shots.

6. Don’t clutter your frame

© Mary Ellen Mark

Not only does Mary Ellen Mark use black and white to strip down her images, but she will also, more often than not, keep her images simple and uncluttered. Look at this simple head and shoulders shot. It is tightly framed, carefully posed and utilises a shallow depth of field. The lesson is, let your subject speak for itself. It’s a theme that carries through to all of her shots.

7. Shoot with flash

© Mary Ellen Mark

A lot of people dislike flash but when used right it can become an effective way of elevating your images and instilling within them a degree of strangeness. Mary Ellen Mark understood this and used it masterfully. Also look at the work of Daido Moriyama and Martin Parr. Look at how their work stands out from the crowd. Their images are almost hyperreal, otherworldly.

8. Let others help you edit

© Mary Ellen Mark

Photography is a lonely game; more often than not, it’s just you with your camera. But that needn’t be the case throughout the whole process. One piece of advice that Mary Ellen Mark often gives is that you should allow other people into your world to help you decide which shots work and which shots don’t. In fact, it’s her husband who is her go-to guy in this area. It can often be the case that we’re too close to our work and need another set of eyes to offer a degree of objectivity. This will pay dividends in the end.

9. Be brutal with your editing

© Mary Ellen Mark

Another set of eyes will also serve you well when it comes to perhaps the most painful process of your editing – rejecting shots. No one likes killing their darlings but it’s a vital step towards project completion. Be brutal. Be merciless. 'Less is more' is a fundamental truth of any creative endeavour.

If you have any thoughts on the work of Mary Ellen Mark, let us know in the comments below.

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