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Be Bold, Be Brave

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark with Marlon Brando on the set of 'Apocalypse Now'

Photography has never been strictly the preserve of the male. Since the dawn of photography, women have sought a place (sometimes against the odds) behind the lens.

Julia Margaret Cameron. Photographed by her son Henry Herschel Hay Cameron

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, Julia Margaret Cameron led the way. Some called her crazy. Some called her, well... Downright impossible. She began photographing in the mid 1860s. And from the first frame, she determined to do things her way. Countering a tidal wave of jeering criticism from her (mainly) male peers - who hated her experiments with soft focus and called her approach 'unrefined' - she endeavoured to persevere and ended up winning her place in the history of photography.

Her pictures have endured because they are pretty wonderful - especially when considered in their historical context. Her idea of shooting portraits in close-up when, as a rule, Victorian convention demanded full figure studies only, was in itself a radical step forward for photography - and is her great contribution to the development of the art.

Cameron recognised the emotional power of the close-up."From the first moment, I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” she wrote, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”

'Iago' - portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron

Cameron's approach was bold and brave. The technology she was dealing with was as challenging as it was primitive. And she was chasing an idea of photography that, against the received wisdom of the day was entirely her own. She succeeded because she had, as they say, the courage to fail.

"...My first successes in my out-of-focus pictures were a fluke. That is to say, that when focussing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.”

Sir John Herschel - photographed by Cameron in 1867

When looking at Cameron's work from a modern viewpoint, I have to say that her images wouldn't look out of place in the world of modern editorial photography. And it was another woman who arrived on the photographic scene almost exactly one hundred years later who would lead magazine photography to great heights.

Annie Leibovitz rose from humble 'army brat' roots to become a star photographer in the late '60s - and has remained at the peak of her profession almost her whole adult life.

She first broke in with 'Rolling Stone' magazine and now, at the age of seventy-five, is still going strong.

Her career has spanned pretty much every contemporary photographic discipline. Her documentary work is outstanding - as is her supremely glossy fashion, commercial and editorial work.

The cast of The Sopranos - photo by Leibovitz

Somebody once asked her- 'What is a photographer's life?' and Leibovitz snapped back- 'It's just a life looking through a lens'. Honestly, I can't say that I have ever been able to warm to Leibovitz as a person. She is as tough as nails... But she is monumentally talented. No question.

Leibovitz has found lasting fame as the -'go-to' photographer of the rich and famous. Never a slave to fame, she has consistently had the courage and conviction to push her subjects on a mission to produce amazing, often very challenging and sometimes deeply touching images.

Two of Leibovititz's most famous covers. The photograph of John Lennon was taken just hours before he was murdered on a New York street in 1981.

... But Mary Ellen Mark appeals so much more to me. She began pretty much at the same time as Leibovitz but took a very different road.

Mary Ellen on assignment for Paris Match in the late Sixties

In direct contrast to Leibovitz Mary Ellen Mark set about devoting her life to the 'un-famous'. Unlike Annie Leibovitz, Mary is no longer with us but she has left behind a hugely significant body of work.

"Mary Ellen had a gift of making a connection with people... Immediately. I think really what Mary Ellen tried to do was to bring an awareness of those people who did not have a voice; the 'un-famous' she called them" Martin Bell - husband of Mary Ellen Mark

Her portrait of 13 year-old teenage prostitute Erin Blackwell is one of her best known images.

But Mary Ellen was also a very capable - if somewhat more gritty - editorial photographer; her work as a movie location photographer is really striking. She tamed Brando at his most difficult on 'Apocalypse Now' and captured Jack Nicholson at his most explosive in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'

The work of Mary Ellen Mark is inspirational. And she devoted a great deal of her time to teaching. Her rules were simple -

Make sure your subject feels directly involved in making the image. Don't 'take' their picture; make it with them.

Turn off your screen if you are shooting digitally (or at least cover/ignore it if you can't turn it off) because you will be trying to assess if you have the image instead of developing the idea by shooting more of the scene in front of you.

Don't forget the power of black and white - Mary, much like Henri Cartier-Bresson, believed that colour often 'got in the way' of a good photograph. Colour is about surfaces. Black and White is about emotion.

One frame at a Time. Contrary to many photojournalists, Mary would often shoot a great number of frames - sometimes a whole roll of film on a single subject; hunting for that single truly expressive or defining image. She said that she always aspired to iconic imagery but accepted that it would always be others who would have to tell her when she had delivered an iconic image.

Which reminds me of the images that have recently surfaced taken by another great woman photographer: Dorothea Lange.

She took this iconic image -

But it wasn't the first frame she took. Like so many of the best photographers, Lange 'worked the floor' shooting from several angles, and also perhaps, building the trust of her subject - a poor migrant mother in 1936.

Lange began from afar, slowly working her way in to that last, classic image that would define the despair and poverty of the American Dustbowl.

Here are three images from the sequence of pictures she shot as she built to that final classic frame -

There are so many other great female photographers that I don't think a single blog - limited as it by time and space - can possibly do them all justice.

Look at the work of Diane Arbus-

...And Vivian Maier -

And Inge Morath -

And Margaret Bourke White -

One thing binds all these women together. They were bold and they were brave in their lives and with their photography. Their work is an inspiration for all photographers - male or female.

Diane Arbus almost single-handedly introduced her own brand of psychologically intense street photography. Vivian Maier produced an absolutely incredible body of wonderful images - that laid undiscovered until after her death - but which are now universally celebrated as the work of an all-time great. Inge Morath became one of the key figures of the famous Magnum Photos agency. And Margaret Bourke-White literally went to the end of the earth to produce some of the best work ever published.

The message here is a pretty simple one, I guess: man or woman, If you want to succeed as a photographer, Be Bold and Be Brave!

All images strictly copyright their respective estates

Blog copyright Matthew Whiteman

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Dec 02, 2023

Great article and stunning photos