From Iceland — Learning To Photograph Iceland

Learning To Photograph Iceland

Published July 27, 2012

The fabled Mary Ellen Mark keeps returning

Learning To Photograph Iceland
Photo by
Alísa Kalyanova

The fabled Mary Ellen Mark keeps returning

“People think Iceland is just landscape; they don’t think it’s exotic. But it’s very exotic. And for photographing people, it’s fantastic. It’s very alive, has great youth culture and great folkloric culture.” Mary Ellen Mark is telling me about the joys of shooting in Iceland. But what makes the people so great to photograph? “Eccentricity, individuality,” she says.

I could say the same about her. She has an ageless look despite her 72 years, like a wise Native American woman in a long-forgotten western. She also brings the ‘60s to mind, which makes sense, as that’s when she became famous as a photographer documenting Vietnam War demonstrations, the women’s liberation movement and transvestite culture. She has kept working as a photojournalist on the fringes of society, but she’s also worked on movie sets, photographing everybody from Fellini to Coppola to Patrick Swayze. I found a beautiful picture of Swayze on her Facebook page as well as a picture of her in the arms of Marlon Brando during the shooting of ‘Apocalypse Now!’ Mary Ellen is also renowned for her work with children—she has a way of photographing them in a fascinating, sans the usual saccharine sweetness.

Her original fascination with Iceland was through working with local disabled children, which went on to become a book, ‘Extraordinary Child’. And now she’s here for the second year in a row to teach at an international workshop for photographers and students of photography. She’s been hosting a similar workshop in Mexico for 20 years and says she “would love doing it for years here too.” However, she’s not optimistic about the prospect: “It’s so expensive here. It would be great if it could be subsidized in any way.”


Mary Ellen hosts the workshop along with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, and Icelandic photographer Einar Falur Ingólfsson, who has worked as both photographer and journalist at newspaper Morgunblaðið and last year published the book ‘Án vegabréfs’ (‘Without A Passport’), a collection of travel stories and photographs. Einar Falur and Mark conduct the photography workshop together while Bell holds a filmmaking workshop. The students can choose their own subjects, but among a list of suggested subjects are music festivals, fishermen, a summer camp for disabled children, the Gay Pride parade, swimming pools in Reykjavík, workers in a geothermal plant, a fish factory and a magnesium factory, the Blue Lagoon, Icelandic horses, and various landscape locations. “We send them out to photograph and then me and Effi [her pet name for Einar Falur] review the pictures and make suggestions. We send them out alone, I don’t believe in groups,” she says. And what is the main challenge in teaching students photography? “The challenge is not to mould them into yourself.”

Mary Ellen’s work is currently taking her all over the globe. She’s working for a pharmaceutical company, taking pictures of eye surgery in the Ukraine, also shooting in Africa and India. Next on the schedule is a visit to China. She says it’s one of her favourite projects. “And they allow me to shoot the way I want to, which is rare for such a project,” says Mary Ellen, who usually shoots in black and white. “It’s more precise, more to the point,” she tells me, while stressing that colour photography can certainly be very beautiful too. “And it’s harder.” 

The workshop starts next week, culminating in a show on August 3. We will pay them another visit before then and examine the results. To be continued.

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