The artist and ICP School alumna reflects on the influence of her former mentor.
Jun 04, 2015

Mary Ellen Mark was one of a kind—a unique person who singled people out to bring the uniqueness inherent in them. So she turned seemingly ordinary people into icons. She could survey an entire scene and somehow, with her very honed intuition, she would zero in on the person she sensed the potential in. Then there were no compromises in what she wanted from that image; never the easy way out.

I would describe her as an active documentarian: she did not just record what passed before her eyes, but she saw, processed, and then collaborated with the subject to make an almost cinematic production out of that interaction. People would be hypnotized by her intensity, her curiosity, her deep interest in them. For me, her portraits are a reflection of her. The power and intensity that come through them is also her own persona. Perhaps people immediately sensed that she was not a one-time person. She was fiercely loyal to her medium and to the people she befriended. Here, too, there were no compromises.

Mary Ellen was instrumental in my becoming a photographer. Upon graduating the National Institute of Design with my studies being in graphic arts (but my heart in photography), I went to see the senior photographers in India to seek their guidance on how to become a photographer, since there were no schools for photography in India. After being rejected by leading photographers in Delhi, I had heard that Mary Ellen was conducting a workshop in Benares. Of course, I could not afford to attend, but I made the 13-hour-long journey in the unreserved compartment of train to try and meet her. I did manage to meet her, and she took me on as her teaching assistant for that workshop.

That is how I first met Mary Ellen Mark. She had not even seen my work. I think she just responded to my enthusiasm, my grit. She could sense the potential in people, even before they were themselves aware of it, and then she did her utmost to bring it out. She convinced my mother that I could be a fine photographer if I would study at the International Center of Photography in New York, and that she would help me settle into New York. My mother had been a widow for some years now, so when I bargained that I wanted ICP instead of a dowry, she agreed—as unique as she is—that a good education with the safe hand of Mary Ellen Mark was more beneficial than a dowry.

What I learned most significantly from Mary Ellen was never to compromise (and how to survive that difficult path). She taught me to be a fighter, to fight for what I thought to be right, and to not be meek and submissive. To call her a presence, or even an important presence, would be putting it mildly. She was a force in my life, and in all the other lives she touched.

Since she herself never gave in, I always thought she would fight death and live to be at least 101, teaching every year in her beloved Oaxaca and outliving all of us. I cannot imagine not seeing her on New York City's Prince Street, wearing her indigo scarves, silver barrettes in her two braids, and with the biggest bags imaginable.

Mary Ellen was unique in every way, unforgettable.

- Dayanita Singh, Delhi June 2015.

Dayanita Singh is author of some 12 books including her most recent, Museum of Chance published in 2015 by Steidl. Singh's works has been presented in exhibitions throughout the world. Based in Delhi, she has been the recipient of numerous awards.