IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Extraordinary moments with ordinary people’

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark talks with NBC’s Jamie Gangel about her work, her intuition and her favorite pieces.
/ Source: TODAY

The “Today” show takes a rare behind-the-scenes look at photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who was recently voted “Most Influential Woman Photographer” by “American Photo Magazine.” "Today" national correspondent Jamie Gangel talks with Mark about her new book, "Exposure," which includes her personal, all-time favorite photos.

Jamie Gangel: Mary Ellen Mark has spent most of her career as a documentary photographer taking almost 50,000 photos over the last four decades. We looked at some of her favorites and some that have never been seen before. A photographer’s photographer, 65-year-old Mary Ellen Mark is always on assignment — in demand to capture actors, politicians and other celebrities.

Mary Ellen Mark: I think for me, a great photograph is a photograph that reaches a level of being iconic. It’s an image that has great content, first, and it has great design and has a universal recognition to people that see it.

Gangel: But while Mark’s photos of the famous are stunning and unique, she is the first to tell you she would much rather be shooting, as she calls them, the “unfamous.”

Mark: My pictures are how I look at the world. I mean, I look at things that are sometimes very sad and things that are humorous, and — but always things that are human.

Gangel: Raised in Philadelphia, Mark says she was always obsessed with photos, and her own career began at age 9 when she was given her first Brownie. [A Brownie is an early model of a Kodak camera that paved the way for point-and-shoot cameras.]

What about it appealed to you?

Mark: It was being able to make contact with people. And I thought, wow, with a camera you can really — you can meet so many different people.

Gangel: Since then, she has traveled the world and made a career of capturing extraordinary moments with ordinary people. Among her favorite subjects — women, children and the homeless.

Elizabeth Biondi, visuals editor of The New Yorker: I think her work — the adjective that comes to mind: strong, compassionate. You have to look at them. They force you to look at them and pay attention to them.

Gangel: No question, some subjects are edgy, even freakish. But Mary Ellen Mark says in each, she is looking for the humanity. Let’s talk about some of the images that you are so well known for. You love the circus.

Mark: I do. I love the relationship between man and animal — to look at it with humor and sometimes with sadness.

Gangel: You also shoot a lot of twins. Why?

Mark: Because how can you resist? [Laughter] It’s so unsual. And — really to show their differences, like the freckle-face twins that I photographed. They look so much alike, their doctor told them that even their freckles are the same, but there — there’s something different in their eyes, definitely.

Gangel: One of her oldest friends and biggest fans is actor and fellow photographer Candice Bergen.

Candice Bergen: Well — first of all, Mary Ellen is — a kind of a witch. And she just has a sort of intuition that’s highly developed. And I would say that she is extremely passionate. And she has a terrific sense of humor, which you see also in her work.

Gangel: She says you’re a witch. [Laughter] She says you have an instinct for knowing what’s going to happen next …

Mark: Well, I think when you photograph for as long as I have, and have taken as many pictures, you — you do become intuitive and that’s why you gravitate toward taking an image. Maybe taking pictures turns you into some kind of witch. I hope it’s a good witch. [Laughter]

Gangel: A favorite photo for both women is one that Mark took of Bergen’s father, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, and his famous dummy “Charlie McCarthy” only six months before his death.

Mark: That was a magic moment. I just grabbed it in two frames. And that was the picture, definitely. I mean, it’s a very nostalgic picture. People thought Edgar was putting Charlie away, but in fact—in fact, he was taking him out.

Gangel: A role model for young photographers, Mark makes time every year for teaching. But while she makes it look so easy, Mark admits starting an assignment is always a challenge.

You shot Hilary Clinton.

Mark: Right.

Gangel: What was that like?

Mark: It was very short. But she was extreme — I admire her tremendously. I mean, she’s a brilliant woman. I was scared to death, of course. [Laughter] But ...

Gangel: You — you? After all of these years ...

Mark: Of course, I get — I get terrified, before I shoot. I was scared to death.

Gangel: Why?

Mark: Because I’m sure I’m going to fail. It’s hard to please yourself. I mean, the longer you’ve been working and taking pictures, the harder you are to please.

Gangel: It is an unfair question to ask— is there one favorite?

Mark: Gosh, that’s really hard. Because I don’t have children, so they’re like my children. [Laughter] Certainly, the Damm family in the car. The Fellini picture and a lot of the circus pictures. They’re like old friends and each experience is special.

Gangel: What’s the biggest compliment someone could pay you?

Mark: The biggest compliment is that you looked at pictures and you really felt you laughed, you — you cried, you — you were taken aback. All those things. That people are emotionally moved by the pictures. That’s the biggest compliment, you know. That they care about the people that I took pictures of.

Mary Ellen Mark’s work can be viewed at her Web site: .