Visit Page
Skip to content

Seen Behind the Scene – Mary Ellen Mark

Marlon Brando on the set of "Apocalypse Now" in 1976. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark
Marlon Brando on the set of “Apocalypse Now” in 1976. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark, known primarily for her documentary photography, has a new book out on another aspect of her work – as a still photographer on movie sets. The New York Times has a slideshow online where Mary Ellen comments on a few of the photos plus a short article. In spite of the brevity there’s great insight conveyed about being a photographer. The book is “Seen behind the scene/Forty years of photographing on set/Mary Ellen Mark” published by Phaidon.

I’ve never met Mary Ellen but I did see her once behind the scene. In 1986, I was a staffer in New York City for a firm that did corporate and public relations photography. I was covering one of the first trade shows at the newly opened Jacob Javits Center. The show centered on physical rehabilitation and due to the odd confluence of events (first show plus the subject matter) I had photographed everyone from Spanky of the Little Rascals to Richard Simmons leading hundreds in exercise routines to Governor Cuomo touring the site and the show. I had walked the show floor dozens of times getting images and on one more round found the IBM booth covered with photo equipment cases. Many were open and it seemed like every lens in 35mm and medium-format was on display, each identified with black lettering on a white piece of tape on the lens cap. It was Mary Ellen Mark hard at work. She had a couple of lights set up, assistants with her, and was photographing subjects with IBM’s products.

I don’t know whom she was working for but for a newbie like myself it was a good lesson in not pigeonholing others and it gave me a fuller understanding of what it means to be professional photographer.