Miami Memoirs: Revisiting Mary Ellen Mark's Miami Photographs

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Miami Herald Building Demolition
Photo by Phillip Pessar/Flick

In the fall of 1986, Tropic Magazine of the Miami Herald hired Mary Ellen Mark to come to Miami. For editor Gene Weingarten and art director Phillip Brooker, it seemed only natural for an up-and-coming city quickly forming a national image to call in one of the era's leading photographs to capture its portrait. But if Tropic had been prompted only by the preening wish to show Miami’s best features in their best light, it would have been better served to hire someone else.

Called a “snake charmer of the soul,” Mark, who died in May, had a reputation for taking haunting pictures of human beings in extremis. In the late '70s, she lived for 36 days on the now defunct Ward 81 for women at Oregon State Hospital. She ate their food, got just as excited as they did on the night steak was served, and dressed in the same frowzy hand-me-downs that make a person look as if everything about her is borrowed, not just the clothes but maybe even her identity. The result was a gallery of portraits of the damned, but the fearful and haunted faces and postures of these women were presented with dignity and tenderness.

In 1980, she visited Mother Teresa' Missions of Charity in Calcutta, and among the images that she captured was the outstretched hand of a starving woman who has just been fed but for whom the begging gesture has become so automatic she could not turn it off. Falkland Road, Prostitutes of Bombay is a study of several bordellos in which Mark lived and made friends, some of the young women were called cage girls because they were exhibited behind bars at street level. A world champion at hanging out, Mark blended into the woodwork, sometimes almost literally. One of the photos in the Falkland collection is of a prostitute with a customer taken from the rafter. She was once asked why, out of all the possible Indias, she chose to photograph the one she did - an India of the impoverished and exploited, an India of the streets - and she answered, "I had to resist the temptation to photograph the exoticism. My concern is with the sociological rather than with the beautiful people in turbans and saris."

Tropic Magazine paid her, if I remember correctly, a thousand dollars a day for ten days plus expenses. When you added it up, the amount would likely equal about a half year’s salary for a beginning reporter at the time. This did not sit well with everyone at the Herald, but at Tropic, we were thrilled.

Mark arrived in town just in time for Halloween, with an assistant and plenty of rolls of film, radiating an intensity of focus that left no doubt as to who was both taking and calling the shots. When we mentioned an upcoming festival, she said: "A festival? I don't do festivals. There's nothing there. Trust me."

When we said Miami is about shopping and she might consider going to a mall, she blanched. Malls were simply not her territory.
I was assigned to follow here around and to take notes. My job was to conjure words to augment her photographs —-an exercise in futility. Nothing I wrote could rival her images. In language versus light, light always wins.

Her first night we headed to Biscayne Boulevard, slowly snaking downtown past motels that look haunted every night, not just at holiday time. Two young women dressed up as a cat and as a witch caught her eye and became Mark's first mark. "They're sweet; they're really sweet," she said in her distinctive voice. She had a pretty voice, rich and thick, but what was most striking was that she didn’t speak in sentences so much as in dazed fragments, a sort of '60s style of speech, lots of gee-whiz adjectives and pauses. "OK, show me your tail… yeah… the tail… what a great tail." At one point, she backed into the street to get the right perspective. Cars swerved to avoid her, and she didn't seem to notice. While at work she had an almost total loss of self, or perhaps an arrival at total self.

I followed her to Camillus House where she took a picture of a homeless man suffering from hepatitis huddled under the sheets in a numbered bed, shoes politely tucked side by side beneath it. On Miami Beach she photographed an old man wearing a white suit. He couldn’t imagine what she saw in him. She told him she loved his suit. To her the suit was dignity. She bought a hamburger for a 27-year-old woman who said she had been a prostitute for only four months and she was starving. She caught the pensive look of an aging burlesque performer at the Pussycat Theatre. At the Jockey Club, she found a posh mom in a white hat, cradling the chin of her handsome son, about 12 years old. People who were nicely dressed appealed to her such as two small children playing alongside a late model car in what would be called Midtown today, the boy in a suit, the girl in a party dress. She wanted some shots of kids, but not just any kids, so we went to the Lubavitch Educational Center in Miami Beach, where the Rabbi in charge allowed six or seven charming if covertly rowdy boys to go to Flamingo Park, where, while she filmed, they made gentle mischief of one kind or another, climbing a forbidden fence and taunting each other with false, but gleefully convincing discoveries of slime on the grass.

One boy: "I know someone who ate worms."

Another: "I know someone who ate cockroaches."

The third: "I know someone who ate snails."

The fourth: "I know someone who ate mice. During the Holocaust."

At the Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart she took more portraits of children, waiting until the girls removed their jewelry as instructed by school officials.

Finally she went to church, an all-black church deep down in South Dade.“Welcome,” said the minister in the low intoning way of an old-fashioned preacher. “Welcome because I know these visitors are our brothers and sisters same as I know they ain't no four or five heavens same as they ain't no four or five Jesuses."

Her favorite subjects, perhaps because she got to spend the most time with them, were two women who posed like well-behaved birds.

From the article:

The soft blond woman holds a picture of Jesus that she takes with her everywhere. She is Paula, and her eyes are blue and lost. The other woman, Shirley, has dark upswept hair, lips twice their real size thanks to a generous application of lipstick, and eyes enlarged by a great streak of purple shadow that extends from one side of her face to the other. Shirley is clutching a tote bag with a picture of the Mona Lisa. She wants everyone to know that the bag is made from oilcloth, not plastic. The women, who live next-door to each other in a run-down apartment in South Beach, are best friends. Paula is 52 and Shirley is 51, and they both like to collect stuffed animals.


"You're great," says the photographer, clicking away, gliding from this direction to that, angling the camera just so. "You are really beautiful. And I love your apartment, Shirley."

"Isn't it wonderful," says Paula. She sighs in admiration.

Paula and Shirley both light cigarettes, a sign that they are about to become expansive, chummy, filled with chatter.

Paula, the blond, has one son, who sends her money every few days. She cannot say when or why or for exactly how long it was that she lost her ability to concentrate, but she did, and for a while she was hospitalized. Now Stelazine and lithium help her keep her thoughts in order. Her room is clean, but sparse, and she has a bad habit of giving everything away.

"Paula," says Shirley, "you should keep your things."

"I know, I know. But other people have so little."

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Shirley's on wine, and on a health kick, which means she waits to take the wine until after breakfast, not before. She says she has spent a lot of time in hospitals and on the street. When she was young, she wanted to be a painter. Her artistry now is devoted to her one-room apartment, which she has decorated with tidbits of lace, posters of old stars, satin and velveteen tamp shades, candlesticks, centerpieces, a zealous assortment of what-have-you garnered through studious and frequent visits to the local thrift shops. The room is a colorful, fussy, even exuberant monument to kitsch as life style. It is perfect for her because her hobby is to watch her room. She can't watch television. "My eyes have to be places," she says, puffing on the ever-present cigarette, shrugging her shoulders. "For some reason they won't stay still."

"Sun's back," says the photographer. "Would you mind standing by the table. It's a great table, it really is, I love everything on it. Paula, that's good, hold Jesus like that. Shirley, take Mona Lisa and tilt it toward the table so it won't have a reflection on it. No reflection. Perfect, perfect. Now I'm working with a certain kind of film. Two and a quarter. Takes longer. I'm sorry, but you're going to have to close your eyes, and when I tell you to open them, you have to keep them open and very still. All right, now, close. OK, open."

And they close and open, over and over.

And when the eyes are open, they are fixed and steady.

Even Shirley's. She seems stunned. For Mary Ellen Mark, the eyes obeyed.

A short break while the photographer reloaded the camera, inspiring Shirley, the dark one, to say, "Now I finally know why movie stars earn the kind of money they do. This is hard work. They deserve every penny."

“They certainly do," says Paula, agreeable as always.

This attention from Mary Ellen Mark punctuated their time, put it in italics. Normally, time is heavy, spent in days walking around here and there and then, at night, eating dinner out of a can.

Before she left, Mark rummaged through one of her many capacious canvas bags and her hands emerged triumphantly, brandishing two small teddy bears.

"Here," she said, almost shyly. "I got these for both of you."

"You shouldn't have," said Shirley, a sentiment quickly echoed by Paula.

"I wanted to," said Mark, in that pretty rolling voice.

Shirley was hugging hers. "But this must have cost a fortune."

“No.”

"Really you shouldn't have…"

"It's nothing really." She seemed at great pain to prove the smallness of the gift. "Look, they were on sale. They weren't just on sale. They were half price. There's something missing. Their hat… their apron… something."

"Thank you, Mary Ellen," said Paula, and then turning to Shirley, she zapped her with a look of pure maternal admonition, "Don't you go giving this away." Paula looked meekly acquiescent. "Mary Ellen, are you married?"

"Yes, I am. Here, would you like to see his picture." She unzipped a pouch attached to a belt and took out three Polaroid snaps that show her with a bearded man. "Martin. He's a filmmaker. He's my best friend actually. I'm lucky, just like you two are lucky. I have a best friend."

"Children?"

"No, I never wanted children. With my work I really couldn't."

Shirley nodded sympathetically in that universal female code: Children, children, there are no guarantees.

When our 10 days were over, she reflected on her reflections.

"I think I did all right. I think I got some good stuff. I was angry earlier today because I saw a great picture, a man in this elaborate neck brace, and we circled the block twice to find him again but we couldn't. It was a perfect image of being trapped. I think a lot about Lewis, the man at Camillus House. He was sick and alone and in a bed with a number. It was perfect loneliness. That's not just Miami. It could have been anywhere in the world. You know what he said? 'I've never been treated this good in my life.'

"Most of the people you see who are unfortunate, they did only one thing wrong. They got born in the wrong bed to families that can't take care of them.

"My favorites I suppose were Shirley and Paula. Shirley's room was terrific. Those plants. Those plants in jars on the windowsill. She made them all from cuttings she found. They were growing. And you know she cared about every object in that apartment, every single thing. It was neat. It was clean. That apartment stood for one thing, hope. That's what it was all about. Hope."

A version of this piece originally appeared in a 1986 edition of Miami Herald's Tropic

New Times will be running "Miami Memoirs," a series about the Magic City's iconic cultural moments, over the next months. Have suggestions? Email cultist@miaminewtimes.com.


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