Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mary Ellen Mark and the Austin Center for Photography

This Thursday marks the first official Austin Center for Photography event with a lecture by Mary Ellen Mark. Although we have co-sponsored events such as slideluck and a panel discussions at the Austin Museum of Art the 'Icons of Photography' lecture series was conceived by ACP in one of our first board meeting over a year ago. I first met with a group of photo enthusiasts in January of 2008 and since then we have meet every month sometimes two and three times during a month for the last year.

Thursday will be the culmination of all our efforts to date to create an intelligent dialogue about photography and create a cohesive photography community in Austin, Texas. I am speechless that its all happening and that we are so lucky to kick off the lecture series with Mary Ellen Mark.

It was in Austin over a decade ago when I was a photojournalism student at the University of Texas that I first studied Mark. My favorite image to date is of a young woman in a mental institution who is almost fully submerged in a soapy bath. The water frames her face, and her dark hair is a nice contrast to the sterile white claw foot tub she is in. The gaze of the woman is distant. The image is haunting and beautiful. I always wondered if Mark simply stood over her or if she needed a ladder to create the image. Is there a frame in which the woman meets Mark's gaze? The image is part of a longer series titled Ward 81.

In 1975, photographer Mary Ellen Mark was assigned by a magazine to do a story on the making of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, shot on location at the Oregon State Hospital, a mental institution. While there, she met, briefly, the women of Ward 81.

Ward 81 is the women's security ward of the hospital, the only locked ward for women in the state. The women on this ward are considered dangerous to themselves or to others.

In February of 1976, Mary Ellen and Karen Folger Jacobs, a writer and social scientist, were given permission to live on the ward in order to photograph and interview the women. They spent thirty-six days on Ward 81.

I will have to pinch myself several times this week. I am fortunate to be able to attend the lecture at the Blanton Auditorium Thursday evening, a Texas Monthly Talks taping on Thursday morning and a private ACP dinner with Mark.

If you haven't yet become an ACP member its not too and don't forget to RSVP for the event. The lecture starts at 7 with a book signing to follow.

Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, USA, 1976 Copyright Mary Ellen Mark