Seeing double

Miki Johnson

Crisp, black-and-white prints of twins multiply along the walls of the cozy, upstairs gallery. In the adjoining room, Bombay’s prostitutes stare with penetrating gazes at the woman capturing them in garish colored photos.

These two collections — “Twins” and “Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay” respectively — which serve to chronologically and stylistically bracket the career of photographer Mary Ellen Mark, have been brought together for the most recent exhibition at Columbia College’s Museum of Contemporary Photography.

“‘Falkland Road’ is much looser in composition,” said Rod Slemmons, the museum’s director. “These (‘Twins’) are very controlled studio photos. You can see (Mark’s) work getting more and more that way.”

A free opening-night reception at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan Ave., will offer the public food and refreshments while they absorb Mark’s work and a second, complementing exhibit featuring pieces from the museum’s permanent collection.

“Ditto: Multiples from the Collection” uses photos — most donated by David Ruttenberg, a founding member of the museum’s advisory committee who died last year — from the museum’s more than 6,500 to highlight the theme of duplication in Mark’s “Twins.”

“We tried to support this show by pulling stuff out of our collection,” Slemmons said, adding that the museum tries to organize at least a few shows a year that draw primarily from its standing collection.

Those attending tonight’s opening also will be able to view the 16-minute movie “Twins,” directed by Mark’s husband, Martin Bell, which was made while Mark was completing the work for her most recent photography book.

Once Mark had finished photographing a set of twins they were asked 20 questions in front of Bell’s film crew. Excerpts from the interviews were included in Mark’s resulting book, “Twins,” which will be on display at the museum.

Slemmons said the movie, which is one of several that have accompanied and chronicled Mark’s more recent photographic endeavors, are important means of adding historical background to her art.

“She agonizes about exploitation,” he said. “She’s very concerned with contextualization.”

One explanatory plate introducing Mark’s work states that she “is suspicious of photography’s ability to communicate without deception.” Yet Slemmons also would challenge viewers to be suspicious of Mark’s proclaimed aversion to intruding on her subjects.

“You have to ask yourself where she was standing when she took this picture,” he says, pointing to photo of a young Indian woman peering up from a mattress, her face half-hidden behind the shoulder of her assumed client on top of her.

But Slemmons also is quick to point out that what Mark does with her camera is really “investigative journalism” and not always intended to stand as simply art. Another of the exhibit’s panels excerpts Mark’s book, “Falkland Road,” telling the story of her repeated visits to the brothels along Bombay’s famous “red-light” road and the painfully slow process of gaining the women’s trust.

“In October of 1978 I decided to return to Bombay and try somehow to … photograph these women,” she wrote in the book’s introduction. “I had no idea if I could do this but I knew I had to try.” Mark spent almost 13 years on the project.

The photos from “Twins” lie at the opposite end of a spectrum that is still highly recognizable as Mark’s own. This time the intrusion is overt — sets of twins gathered for Twinsburg, Ohio’s, Twins Festival were clearly posed for the huge camera inside Mark’s carefully lit portable photo studio. But the subject matter also is “softer,” and the twins “wouldn’t have been there in the first place if they had a problem with (appearing in photos)” Slemmons pointed out.

The unchanging background in these prints emphasizes the repetition of their subjects while the extreme detail allows viewers to observe subtle genetic differences between the pairs.

The photos are produced on a 20-by-24-inch one-time polaroid, which is exactly the same size as the print. Because the pictures are not enlarged from a smaller negative (as with 35mm film), the tiniest details are amazingly clear.

“There’s a little bit for everybody (at the museum),” said Stephanie Conaway, its manager of exhibitions, adding that the works from the museum’s permanent collection should satisfy those searching for “traditional photography” while at least part of Mark’s work is “not too out there” either.

And Slemmons said he expects a little bit of everyone to show up at tonight’s opening. Although the museum’s openings are popular with students, Slemmons said he expects many visitors from outside the college, especially now that classes are out for the summer.

Unlike most openings the museum hosts, the artist will not be available for the opening of her work. Mark was recently at Columbia, however, to receive an honorary degree and will return Sept. 30 to discuss the exhibition. The show will run through Oct. 5.

Managing Editor Miki Johnson is a Medill senior. She can be reached at [email protected]