Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sandi Dooley reviews "Man and Beast: Photographs from India and Mexico" by Mary Ellen Mark, #3

On March 12, I visited The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University to view "Man and Beast: Photographs from India and Mexico" by Mary Ellen Mark, organized by the director of the Wittliff Collections, David Coleman. There is a new hardcover book by the same name, published by The University of Texas Press, that is for the Wittliff Collections' Southwestern and Mexican Photography book series. Many of the people in the exhibition were circus performers and trainers in Mexico and India whom Mark spent years with.

In the Wittliff Collections brochure:

Mark describes the circus as "a universal form of theatre". "It incorporates," she writes, "so many things---beauty, irony, poetry, tragedy." The circus also provides a launching point to explore other themes that pervade Mark's work and are particularly prevalent in "Man and Beast": the mutability of identity through costume and performance; hope, humor, and faith in difficult circumstances; and the innate human (and animal) need for contact and community---in the fullest range of its meaning.

More than 90 of Mark's photographs are in the "Man and Beast" exhibition. All were made with fine-grain black and white film, impeccably printed. One room held a number of prints that were identified as performance art. Two of the prints particularly held my attention. One, titled "An Elephant Picks Up His Trainer, Rajkamal Circus", Upleta, India 1989, showed an act where the elephant had its trunk around the trainer, had picked him up, and then placed him on its back. The man's feet were neatly together and it was apparent that it was a cooperative effort. 

Another photograph, titled "Pinky Practicing, Great Royal Circus", Cochin, India 1992, showed a ten-year-old child acrobat and contortionist named Pinky. Pinky's story regarding how she came to be in the circus described the alternative as being a life of poverty and abuse. Her mother stated that Pinky was beaten by she and her husband because Pinky claimed to be God. After the father died, the mother could not make ends meet and gave Pinky to the circus; the circus took care of Pinky and sent the mother money each month. The mother did not understand that she was signing a fifteen year contract because she does not read or write. Pinky described a time when she visited her mother and was asked to perform in front of the cinema hall, and people threw money on her. After this, she decided that she would not go with her mother if she came to take her.

This is a link to my favorite image of Pinky, from Photos on Mary Ellen Mark's Facebook page:
Pinky at The Great Royal Circus, Junagadh, India, 1992

This is the link to Mary Ellen Mark's website: Mary Ellen Mark. The scope and quality of her documentary work over the last fifty years is extraordinary. She will be speaking specifically about her work featured in News -- Mary Ellen Mark: Man and Beast, at Texas State University, on April 27, 2014, at 2:00 p.m.

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