Two Talented A Couple Celebrated For Her Photography And His Films.

Posted: June 14, 1988

NEW YORK — Several years ago a slick magazine planned a story about couples it deemed uncommonly "well-dressed." For reasons known only to the editors, recalled world-class photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark - whose sartorial splendor runs to comfortable black cotton and silver bangles and beads - she and her husband, award-winning filmmaker Martin Bell, made it to the magazine's short list.

"Well they came out to the studio, took one look at Martin" - who favors Hawaiian shirts, Canal Co. blue jeans and canvas sneakers - "and that was the end of that," Mark teased one recent afternoon, as she padded about her SoHo loft in black sneakers, preparing to edit pictures from a recent assignment in Brazil for National Geographic, and packing for a trip to Budapest to shoot publicity stills on the set of an HBO movie about Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

Bell, the computer whiz of the duo, looked up from the word processor where he was banging out a curriculum vitae that included some of his career highlights: director-cameraman for the Nestle's "sweet dreams" commercials; director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Streetwise; cinematographer of Jane Goodall Among the Wild Chimpanzees, winner of the 1985 Emmy for outstanding achievement in cinematography, and director-cameraman of A Matter of Trust: Billy Joel in the USSR, an ABC TV special that airs tomorrow night at 9:30 on Channel 6.

It's too bad those slick magazine editors weren't looking for uncommonly talented couples. Mark and Bell, whose Prince Street loft is a seething talent factory, belong on that list without a doubt.

"One of the top three or four (photojournalists) in the world" is how Richard B. Stolley, director of special projects for Life, has described M. E. Mark, as she is professionally known. She was born in Philadelphia in 1940,

went to high school in Cheltenham and took up photography

as a scholarship student at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications in 1963. Working for the Catholic magazine Jubilee and Penn alumni publications, Mark launched her free-lance career in New York. On assignment for Penn to shoot an event at Rosemont College, she met Pat

Carbine, then managing editor of Look. When Mark later proposed a picture story about a drug clinic in London, Carbine gave her the go-ahead.

"That was really the beginning. (Once) I worked for a big magazine the other magazines started calling," Mark said.

"From the very first moment I took pictures (on the streets of Philadelphia) I loved it," she said. "The thrill was the idea of just being on a street, turning a corner and looking for something to see. It was just an amazing feeling. . . . Photography became my obsession. . . . In a way it's not so different when I go out to work now. It's just that now I have years of experience in knowing how to use that little machine in front of me - at least better than I used it then. When it's good and interesting it's still that feeling of being on the street and wondering - God, I love this! - what's going to happen next?"

"Access" and "unpredictability" - Mark says she craves them as a junkie craves drugs.

Access to what she calls "the edges," as in: the exotica of Turkey, which she visited as a Fulbright Fellow in 1965; the brothels of Bombay's Falkland Road, which she documented vividly in 1978; Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta, where she photographed the sick and dying in 1982; the debauched world of runaway kids in Seattle, which she photographed for a Life story called "Streets of the Lost" in 1983, and Kiev, which she visited on assignment for the book A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union last year.

And unpredictability, as in assignments that have sent her ricocheting around the world: from the Sudan to document the plight of Khartoum runaways who sniff rubber cement for a hunger-numbing high, to the American Southwest to cover a Christian bikers' convention for Rolling Stone; from Sydney for a story on the changing flavor of immigration in Australia for National Geographic, to Mexico to shoot publicity stills on the film set of Jane Fonda's forthcoming film Old Gringo.

Along the way this former head cheerleader (who chuckles at the recollection of wanting desperately "to be popular with boys" in high school) developed the distinctive visual signature she describes accurately as ''emotionally strong images that have something a little off-putting or strange about them."

Her exceptional acuity has been recognized with dozens of accolades, including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award (three times), the University of Missouri's top award for a picture story (twice), the Leica Medal of Excellence, the Phillipe Halsman Award for Photojournalism and a citation from the World Press Photo Foundation, which last month feted her "Outstanding Body of Work Throughout the Years" at a gala at New York's Plaza Hotel. Since 1976, Mark's work has appeared in more than 75 solo and group exhibitions around the world.

Her loft - which is decorated with black-and-white portraits inscribed to her in French by famous photographers Cartier-Bresson and Lartigue, and colorful souvenir icons she gathered from more than a dozen trips to India - is also the repository for the score of books she has created or participated in. Carefully filed away in archives attended by a handful of assistants are the negatives and transparencies of Mark's work for Life, Look, the Sunday Times of London, the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Paris Match, Stern and Time. A book of her photographs of runaway teenagers is scheduled for publication later this year by University of Pennsylvania Press.

In a Japanese restaurant on the corner of Houston and West Broadway, Mark lingered over takemaki rolls and hot sake. Luxuriating in a rare moment of rest from a schedule that has her traveling several times a month, Mark said the occasions when her work intersected with her husband's were especially nice.

She met Bell, 45, a native of Yorkshire, on a London movie set. He was shooting a documentary about James Cagney. She was shooting Ragtime publicity stills. They married in 1982.

"I never thought I would marry," Mark recalled. "You know, you travel all the time, and in this kind of work it's difficult to have a relationship. But with Martin it just really worked out. We have our own lives. We do our own work. And yet we really care for each other. . . . I feel lucky. I never expected to be able to have my work and have a relationship also. . . . He's as deeply involved in his work as I am in mine. So we both understand that. It's not like (either of us) is always competing for attention with (the other's) work."

To date, the couple's most important collaboration was on Streetwise, Bell's remarkable film about teenagers subsisting on the streets of Seattle, which grew out of a Life assignment to Mark and writer Cheryl McCall.

Financed in large part by musician Willie Nelson and New York real estate developer Joseph Saleh, the film was completed on a budget of $325,000. It was released originally to theaters, and has since played on public, commercial and cable television networks around the world. Through June 1987, it was the fourth top-grossing documentary available on videocassette in the United States.

From their work on the Life story, Mark and McCall were able to tap trusting contacts in the Seattle street subculture. Bell brought a tremendous ability to make color motion pictures that resonate with the power and depth of black-and-white portraiture.

"Collaborating with Martin is great," said Mark. "He's a filmmaker. I'm a photographer. Neither of us would try to impose our will on the other. . . . Working on Streetwise was a very difficult situation. It was tense. And we were all working, working. But we never once argued about the point of view of the film. . . . He's an incredible help. He's made me a better photographer

because he's incredibly technical. And through him I've learned a lot more about technique."

When Bell's documentary about singer Billy Joel's 1987 "Bridge Tour" to the Soviet Union airs tomorrow, it will mark the second major collaboration between Mark and Bell. For three weeks last July and August they traveled with the rock and roller's entourage to document - in motion and still pictures - casual encounters between Joel; his wife, Christie Brinkley; their daughter, Alexa Ray, and their Soviet hosts. Shot in Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilisi, the film is part music special, part intriguing travelogue.

Bell credits Mark with conceiving a central moment in the Billy Joel film. Through a contact, Mark had heard that the grave site of Soviet poet Vladimir Visotsky was visually moving.

"One morning, before we even dared to go to Billy with the idea, we went down to check it out. It happened to be the anniversary of Visotsky's death (and hundreds of people were paying their respects). When we got out of the car we realized it was something extraordinary," Bell said. Within the hour they returned to shoot a scene at the grave with Joel.

Bell's film concludes with a series of black-and-white still photographs. Their creator is not hard to identify. They have the emotional impact of nostalgic postcards - and bear the powerful, slightly off-balance visual signature of M. E. Mark.

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