Undrabörn/ Extraordinary Child: Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
Through Jan. 10, 2010

Mary Ellen Mark’s pictures portray downtrodden, underserved, cast-off or simply overlooked parts of society.

An acclaimed documentary photographer, Mark creates work that crosses geography and culture, and she provides unblinking studies of a wide range of social customs. For more than three decades, she has produced important photographic series on subjects as diverse as Mother Teresa’s Mission of Charity, homeless street youths in Seattle, a locked Oregon State Hospital psychiatric ward, rural poverty in Appalachia and brothels in Bombay.

Throughout her career she has also proven her dedication to the process of documentary photography, making her an excellent and instructive choice for a show at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Photography. Her projects are painstaking and deliberate, sometimes taking years due to the time required to gain the trust of her subjects before she even begins to photograph them.

When invited in 2005 to create a portfolio series for a newspaper in Reykjavik, Iceland, Mark opted to photograph schoolchildren at an institution for youth with physical and mental disabilities. She produced 70 gripping pictures of students from grades 1 through 10, taken in three different schools in that city from 2005 to 2007. Mark’s ongoing involvement with these schools and her time-intensive process infuse the work with a sensitivity and tenderness that would have been impossible to produce in a shorter time span or with a more detached relationship on the part of the artist.

The show, called Extraordinary Child, is indeed striking, and also beautifully installed. In lieu of the usual didactic wall text, the exhibition offers visitors a flyer they can pick up that contains a numbered list of gallery images; this allows the images to stand alone with an added radiance. Mark gives us image after unflinching image of these children’s’ daily lives, their physical difficulties and conditions and their own distinctive personal qualities. The photos are frank in the daily challenges these kids face: requiring assistance for such basic activities as moving or walking about, feeding oneself and bathing. We also come away with admiration for the professionalism and dedication of the schools’ teachers and staff.

There are also photos depicting the children in intimate, more playful moments: resting or sleeping, eating, hugging or literally supporting one another, or swimming (a particularly strong presence in the kids’ lives). Sometimes they’re simply posing briefly for the camera. Other photographs portray children who have no apparent disabilities: for example, one titled “Emil with snow on his eyelashes” shows a young boy in his winter coat with snow on his shoulders, jacket hood and face. It is a straight-up portrait of a child whose innocent gaze and self-awareness transcends any physical limitation.

The cumulative effect of the variety of all these moments gives the show added emotional clout. Seeing the kids in their most vulnerable moments as well as their more spirited moments deepens our understanding of their daily realities.

The dramatic juxtapositions of activities, personalities and physical realities in Mark’s photos have majesty about them. She allows the camera to do what documentary photography does best: capture those fleeting moments that expose, define and teach about the human condition. But most fundamentally, the show reveals Mark as an artist who cares.