Interview with Meredith Lue, Mary Ellen Mark’s Library Manager
July 2, 2018
When I began working in New York City at GQ Magazine after college, I was thrilled to learn that a friend of mine from high school, Meredith Lue, was working at The Aperture Foundation, a New York-based publisher of photography books and a support network for the photo community. I was even more thrilled when I learned that Lue had started working with one of my favorite contemporary photographers: Mary Ellen Mark.
I first became aware of Mark’s work when I was in college, and thanks to GQ and Esquire, I was able to interact with her through magazine assignments. Like many photography greats, she had a strong presence wherever she went. Having the opportunity to work with her was a true honor. Sadly, she passed away in 2015.
Lue stayed with Mark’s studio as the Library Manager and continues to keep the late photographers’ work alive. This month, we speak with Lue about her journey with Mark, managing the library of images and her experience in the publishing world.
Ian Spanier: How did you enter the photography industry?
Meredith Lue: I took photography in tenth grade. Does that count? Actually, I’ve always been interested in the arts—but not limited to photography. I took some art history classes in college and thought it might be an interesting field to pursue after college.
I don’t really remember how I ended up at Aperture. I must have seen a listing for their Work Scholar program and applied. I was the Gallery Work Scholar for several months before they hired me to run their small gallery. (This was back when they were in the brownstone on 23rd Street in Manhattan.) Working at Aperture was a real education. I didn’t know too much about photography when I started, so it was my foundation for everything. I couldn’t have asked for a better learning environment. There was so much history there and the staff was really generous about sharing their knowledge.
I met quite a few photographers during my three-plus years at Aperture. Most I met just in passing as they came to see an exhibition or as they came to meet with their editors in the back room. But the most significant interaction that I remember was spending the day with Bruce and Emily Davidson. We were sequencing and hanging Bruce’s Central Park exhibition.
IS: Did you ever consider becoming a Photographer yourself?
ML: After 10th-grade photo… no. As much as I appreciate art and photography, I know myself well enough to know that I’m not creative or technical enough to be a good artist.
IS: How did you meet Mary Ellen Mark?
ML: The first time I saw her was when she came to that Bruce Davidson Central Park exhibition opening at Aperture. I just remember a crowd forming around her as she played with someone’s bulldog in the middle of the gallery.
A little while later, one of my former interns at Aperture was assisting at the Maine Photographic Workshops where Mary Ellen used to teach every summer. Mary Ellen asked my friend if she wanted to interview for the Library Manager position. She declined, but she reached out to me becuase she thought I might be interested. I was, so I went in for an interview and that was it. I’ve been here almost 20 years.
IS: How did you become the Library Manager of Mary Ellen’s Falkland Road, Inc?
ML: Falkland Road is a tiny company. It was run by just Mary Ellen, her husband and filmmaker Martin Bell, the Library Manager, the Studio Manager and some interns. I was hired as the Library Manager and maintain that position.
In general terms, I deal with everything that has to do with existing photography in Mary Ellen’s library. This includes books, exhibitions, gallery sales, syndication, workshops and lectures. Back in the day, the Studio Manager was largely in charge of production of new work. There was always some overlap between us. For instance, I did a lot of production on Mary Ellen’s personal projects like “Twins” and “Prom.”
Of course, now that Mary Ellen’s not here, things have changed. We’re sort of learning as we’re going. Operating as an archive/estate is very different, but, we have some exciting projects coming together.
IS: I imagine in your time working with Mary Ellen you met a number of young photographers. Can you talk about any of your experiences?
ML: When she could afford it, Mary Ellen was exceedingly generous with her time and met with young photographers at length. She was very committed to teaching and put as much effort into her workshops and students as she did for a shoot for a client. She would be just as engaged with the 16-year-old who just started photographing as she was with the professional journalist. I wasn’t usually at the workshops—except for a few that we hosted at the studio—but, from what I saw, she always tried to be honest and encouraging with her critiques.
One photographer that comes to mind is Dayanita Singh. Dayanita recently recounted the story of how she met Mary Ellen. Dayanita waited in the lobby of the hotel until Mary Ellen walked by and then introduced herself. Mary Ellen, always knowing the value of a tenacious local guide, immediately asked Dayanita if she wanted to tag along and help with the workshop. When Dayanita confided in Mary Ellen that she was having a hard time getting her young career started, Mary Ellen immediately advised her to come to New York—India was not the right place for a woman to build a career as a photographer.
They ended up having a very productive relationship. Dayanita was the local producer on Mary Ellen’s Indian Circus project and produced and assisted on some other shoots, as well. Through this relationship, Dayanita learned some very important lessons from Mary Ellen, namely to never compromise and to always fight for what you believe in. Dayanita always valued these lessons and Mary Ellen’s encouragement as she built her photography career, both in India and around the world. Dayanita was a 2018 Infinity Award winner and PDN Photo Annual winner for her book Museum Bhavan.
IS: What’s the most memorable learning experience you can share about your career thus far?
ML: I’m not a photographer or a creative-type, so I’m going to give you a really boring and pragmatic answer: In general, I’ve learned to be prepared. Mary Ellen was always obsessive about preparing for shoots. She would have two (or three) of everything just in case something went wrong on a shoot. We would have every permit and permission worked out way before getting on a plane. Our call sheets were pages and pages long with every possible piece of information. It didn’t mean that things wouldn’t go wrong, but this way we were more prepared when things did.
The other thing is for photographers to be organized. Mary Ellen and Martin organized her library way before I started working here, but I can’t tell you how invaluable it is to have everything organized and keyworded. It makes any request totally manageable. We use our databases for everything: research requests, editing for books and exhibitions, project proposals, etc. We have almost 70,000 images in our database, so keeping them organized and searchable is essential to getting anything done, especially with today’s fast turnarounds.
IS: What was it like working for one of the great female photographers in a time when the industry is primarily male-dominatred? How can young photographers learn from Mary Ellen’s impact on the photo community?
ML: Mary Ellen has said that she benefitted from being a female photographer because people inherently trusted her more. She believed that she had an easier time gaining access to people’s homes and lives than some of her male counterparts may have. That said, I don’t think she considered her gender as much of a factor in what she did or how she did it. She was persistent and persuasive when it came to photographing interesting stories. I think it’s that way for both men and women.
I don’t think the shift in gender culture has changed as significantly as the shift in how people view and consume photography. This was the real concern for Mary Ellen. She recognized that the lack of interest and support of documentary photography made it very difficult for most young photographers. I think that’s why she was always so encouraging to her students who pursued documentary work. She knew how tough it was—and still is.
IS: What are the future plans for the Mark archive?
ML: Our goal is to keep Mary Ellen’s photographs in front of audiences. She’s always had a great fan base, but we want to make sure that younger audiences know the work too. It’s still relevant. And in many ways, the idea of truthful and unadulterated documentary photography is more important now than ever before. We’ll continue to publish books, mount exhibitions and get the work out there.
Rapper Nas just used one of Mary Ellen’s photographs for his new album NASIR. The image spoke to him immediately. It was amazing to us that a photograph that was shot for Texas Monthly in 1988 was able to find new life and a new audience through a rap album.
At the moment, we’re working on a couple of book projects. The first is a big retrospective that will include a little bit of everything: Iconic images, unpublished photographs, behind-the-scenes snapshots, and texts from Mary Ellen and others. The second is an expanded version of Ward 81. Both of them will be published by Steidl in the next few years.
The Howard Greenberg Gallery, which represents and sells the work now, has also been helpful with keeping the work circulating.
IS: What is your favorite photograph?
ML: Of Mary Ellen’s? I’ve had a few favorites over the years. I couldn’t pick just one. Some of my favorites accompany this interview, and there are a few ‘new’ ones that will be in the upcoming book that I’m really excited about.
IS: Favorite photographer?
ML: I don’t think I have a favorite. I sometimes enjoy different work depending on my mood. Imogen Cunningham was probably one of the first photographers that made an impression on me back in my 10th grade photography class. Although, it may have been Judy Dater‘s portrait of her that intrigued me first. Man Ray was also very interesting to me because of how he portrays the idea of innovative processes and heavy graphics. More recently, I’ve been really appreciating Helen Levitt‘s sense of humor.
IS: Mary Ellen published over 20 books during her career. Which Mary Ellen book should photographers seek out?
ML: The obvious answer would be Ward 81 or Falkland Road. They are not necessarily the best books in terms of design or printing, but the projects were groundbreaking and seminal in Mary Ellen’s career. The not-so-obvious answer is Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment (part of Aperture’s Workshop Series). It’s not a hardcover coffee table book like most of her other books, but it’s a unique document. In fact, Mary Ellen and her editor, Denise Wolff, had to schedule several of their working sessions for this book around Mary Ellen’s doctor’s appointments during the last few months of her life. There was even one time when Mary Ellen and Denise worked together while Mary Ellen had a transfusion in the hospital. When the book was released, we realized that, for as many workshops as Mary Ellen taught over the years, this was the only record of her lessons and advice to students and photographers. Mary Ellen and Denise worked very hard to maintain Mary Ellen’s voice throughout the book. As I read through the book, I can clearly hear Mary Ellen saying everything. It’s truly a wonderful part of her legacy.
IS: Finally, what advice would you have for individuals looking to work in the photo industry today?
ML: I think any industry values hard-working, well-spoken, well-rounded, and motivated people. The people that have impressed me the most are those with both a good knowledge of photography (both the history of photography and current issues), as well as general office know-how and the willingness to take out the garbage.
Ian Spanier is an award-winning advertising and editorial photographer based in Los Angeles and New York City and a PhotoServe member and contributor. As comfortable as he is in the studio, he can face any challenge presented on location. Ian’s first full book of published work, Playboy, a Guide to Cigars, documents his travels to nearly every country that manufactures cigars and is available at fine cigar shops and at major bookstores. His second critically acclaimed book, Local Heroes: Portraits of America’s Volunteer Fire Fighters, is out now in stores and online. You can visit the book’s Tumblr Page here. Spanier is a member of the Lowepro Team, Photoflex’s Pro Team, and Imagenomic’s featured photographer list. He has been the recipient of numerous awards from such major photo competitions as American Photography, SPD, The International Color Awards, The International Black & White Spider Awards, PDN’s World in Focus, Planet Magazine, and Seeing the Light, to name a few. Finally, he is a regular lecturer for SMUG, as well as for The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Ian Spanier is available for assignment. Questions or comments, e-mail him at email@example.com. To see more of Ian Spanier’s latest advertising and personal projects, visit his site at www.ianspanier.com.