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Seen Behind the Scene: On the Set with Mary Ellen Mark

Marked man: Marlon Brando on the set of Apocalypse Now, as captured by Mary Ellen Mark

His face watches us from the gallery wall, a grim black-and-white visage with a shaved head and a large beetle crawling across his hard, fleshy dome. The subject of the photograph is Marlon Brando, slouching heavily on the set of Apocalypse Now, still a smoldering chameleon in 1976 as he looks up into the lens of Mary Ellen Mark somewhere in the jungles of the Philippines. And there’s another picture, with a dragonfly resting on the tip of his finger, Brando’s expression calm, impenetrable. He had a way with bugs.

Some three decades later, Mark stops to look at these framed images, the actor’s dog tags and black jungle fatigues, the fake blood spattered across his scalp. “I felt like I was lucky to be part of an important film,” she says now of her month on the set. “It was intense, but it was great.” She was there at Brando’s invitation, to document his unraveling as the insane Col. Kurtz in the surreal Vietnam War epic. Mark had earned his trust a year before by simply enduring some subtle abuse during the making of The Missouri Breaks, for which Brando’s rule was that set photographers must always ask permission before shooting him. Every time. And the answer was always no. Until her final day on the film’s Montana set, when the inscrutable Method actor suddenly became available.

“I call people like that mind-fuckers,” Mark tells a group of Art Center photography students gathered to hear her talk at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles, displaying pictures from her new book, Seen Behind the Scene/Forty Years of Photographing On Set. She smiles at the memory of Brando. “He was really complex, but he was absolutely beautiful to photograph.”

The new book is her 17th, and likely her most commercial project ever, with vivid, bankable images of Jack Nicholson and Johnny Depp, Katharine Hepburn and Brad Pitt, and page after page of marquee-name superstars and film auteurs. Mark’s career is mostly dedicated to serious work, to pictures in a social context focused not on celebrity but on the “unfamous”: all the ignored runaways and working poor; the homeless and mentally ill; young lovers and the moms of the Aryan Nation. Over the years, she’s traveled often to India, photographed Mother Teresa, child prostitutes and the Indian circus. And she’s funded some of these projects by working as a still photographer on movie sets, beginning with the hippie melodrama Alice’s Restaurant in 1969. Soon, she was capturing the poetic sweep of Fellini’s posture as he barked into a megaphone on the nighttime set of Satyricon, or hiking with Francois Truffaut and Catherine Deneuve in the snowy French Alps for La Sirène du Mississippi.

This put her in a long tradition of serious photojournalists who, within the dramatic and comic moments of a film production, found not glamour, but material worthy of their gifts. In 1960, the Magnum photo agency dispatched its finest photographers (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt and Eve Arnold among them) to Reno, to document the making of The Misfits, and its headline-jolting cast and crew, led by Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, John Huston and Arthur Miller. There were others, like photographer Phil Stern, who brought rawness and postmodern flair to their best work, carefully documenting the creation of Hollywood images.

“When you’re working on a film, it’s almost like photographing paintings at a museum,” says Mark, now 68 and dressed entirely in black, with twin braids over her shoulders. “You’re photographing somebody else’s world. I just try and interpret it and make it real, and make it what the actors are about, what the director is about, and what the film is about.”

The earliest work in Seen Behind the Scene was made with an inconspicuous 35mm Leica camera. There’s John Belushi snarling in his police mug shot for The Blues Brothers, Dustin Hoffman making faces just behind the shoulder of a deadly serious Sir Laurence Olivier between takes on Marathon Man. And a bit of the madness and mayhem that plagued the making of Apocalypse Now is captured in the thousand-yard stare of Dennis Hopper, in character as a far-out, fried war photographer amid the scattered bones and severed head of Col. Kurtz. “That was a pretty intense period for him,” Mark remembers of Hopper. “He lived that part. He became that guy.”

Assignments took her into the homes of actors for such portraits as a backyard shot of Patrick Swayze in a dress, or the ventriloquist’s dummy Charlie McCarthy rising from a packing case opened by Edgar Bergen. Actor Clayton Moore answered his front door in 1992 already wearing his beloved Lone Ranger mask from the ’50s, and kept it on for the entire session.

“There are some people who become best friends with everyone they photograph,” Mark says. “There are people that I really like and admire and respect, but in a way I think it’s better to keep a distance. I think you get better pictures of people that you don’t know very well.”

The mission in her movie work is always to make her subjects look good, and real, she says. Heavy post-production and retouching typical of modern pop-culture magazines are of no interest to her at all. And Mark’s preferred medium of late is the 20-by-24-inch Polaroid instant camera, which renders the “unfamous” and her movie-star subjects in equal measures of crisp, lifelike detail.

Hollywood could even feed into her personal work. She learned lessons in lighting from watching master cinematographers like Vittorio Storaro and Conrad Hall. And shooting on the set of Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest led to a monthlong project in 1976 at the mental hospital used in the film. Mark moved into Ward 81, the maximum-security women’s quarters, documenting the patients as individuals, not freaks. She spent a month there, earning the trust of the patients, photographing their lives, traumas and fleeting moments of peace.

That kind of serious, difficult work has frequently drawn unwelcome comparisons to Diane Arbus, who shared Mark’s weakness for subjects outside the mainstream, rendered in the abstraction of black and white, in blunt images stripped to the essentials. Mark’s pictures are less distant, more empathetic. So it’s surprising to find in Seen Behind the Scene images from 2006’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. But that film’s producer was a friend, and Mark brought out the big Polaroid camera to exaggerate the differences in style, capturing Robert Downey Jr. in character as a man suffering from hypertrichosis, or completely covered in hair.

She also had a session with actress Nicole Kidman as the fictionalized Arbus. Mark was told she would have only five minutes, a typical nightmare scenario for anyone assigned to photograph a major actress. Even Brando gave more time, which was truly strange considering the role Kidman was playing. And yet Mark mentions the time restriction not to complain, but to marvel at how well the actress used it. She arrived in a simple white slip and quietly projected something raw and puzzling into the camera lens. Mark shot five frames and was done.

“She gave me a beautiful moment,” Mark says with a smile. “I’m grateful for the five minutes. I got it. Why do I need more?”

SEEN BEHIND THE SCENE/FORTY YEARS OF PHOTOGRAPHING ON SET | By MARY ELLEN MARK | Phaidon Press | 264 pages | $60 hardcover