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February 1 - March 10, 2007 at Fahey/Klein Gallery, West Hollywood

by Ray Zone

Rekha with beads in her mouth," 1979,
color photograph, 12 1/4 x 18 3/4".

A madam of one of the more expensive
houses with her girlsl,
1979, color
photograph, 12 1/4 x 18 3/4".

Twelve-year-old Lata lying in bed.
color photograph, 12 1/4 x 18 3/4".

Falkland Road. Bombay, India 1979
, color
photograph, 12 1/4 x 18 3/4".

It only takes a thirtieth of a second for photo emulsion exposed to light to form an image.  But the labor that precedes that photonic moment can take years.  That is the case with the remarkable Falkland Road photographs of Mary Ellen Mark.
This portfolio of fifteen dye transfer prints from Mark’s 1981 essay, “Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay” was originally published as a book by Knopf.  The essay was reprinted by Steidl Books in 2005, and expanded at that time with unpublished photographs from the series.  

Dye transfer prints produce some of the most vivid and subtle colors in photographic printing.  Four color separations, Cyan-Magenta-Yellow and Black (CMYK), are produced with gelatin reliefs and layered in precise registration on a printing substrate.  The result is a chromatic vibrancy that has to be seen with the naked eye to be fully experienced.

Mark is intrigued with the peoples of India, and in a separate series of black and white photographs she explores the circus performers who wander that polyglot and teeming culture. To photograph the prostitutes of Bombay, Mark first had to earn their trust, a process that took a decade.  Along the way, she became a familiar figure to the prostitutes and children, transvestites and madams of Falkland Road.  “Everyday I had to brace myself, as though I were about to jump into freezing water,” explained Mark.  “But once I was there, pacing up and down the street, I was overwhelmed, caught up in the high energy and emotion of the quarter.”

The photographic documents of this endeavor are provocative and staggeringly human.  Beautiful in their rich, chromatic strangeness, the images are also heartbreaking.  The difficulties of the life for child prostitutes, as young as thirteen, are calmly presented.  The documentary nature of the images, the relatively quiet presentation of the situations, might trigger an even greater emotional response in the onlooker.  The camera lens and aperture, of course, will dispassionately admit any light or subject.  But what must go on in the mind of the photographer capturing these moments?  Mark’s deft balancing act makes her an aperture, stripped of judgment, for the purposes of the document itself.

So, we see life on Falkland Road presented without moral predisposition, as it is lived.  This is the crux of Mark’s work, and the fruit of her efforts.  Sometimes there is suffering, sometimes there is laughter.  One print shows five young girls with their make-up boxes.  They are calmly preparing for the evening.  Another displays a proud madam at one of the higher priced establishments with some of her girls.  The cages on Falkland Road at night, with the young girls offered therein, are beautifully photographed.  A young girl, Kamla, laughing with her customer, is shown peeking out from under a blanket.  One young prostitute with sad eyes is shown with a customer on top of her.

In Mark’s sure hands, photography approaches the summit of its artistic possibilities.  Her photographic stratagem is to provide documents of the human condition.  But there is more to them than that.  They are also luminous objects, beautiful to behold.  Ultimately, it is as if Mark’s camera has its own soul and, by utter quiescence, its aperture becomes a window looking out into the hearts and minds of its subjects.