Good pictures get to the point. It's great pictures that don't. Sometimes they have no point to get to. They don't try to simplify matters but to complicate them, to add nuance upon nuance and keep all judgments suspended. In the Mary Ellen Mark show that opened this month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there are dozens of good pictures. There are some great pictures too.
For Mark, the Philadelphia show, which runs through Aug. 6 and then moves to Fort Wayne, Ind., New York City and San Francisco, is a homecoming. In the early 1960s she studied painting and art history at the University of Pennsylvania, then discovered that studio work was too solitary. The camera got her out of the house and onto the street, which it turns out is where she belongs. At age 60, Mark is now one of the pre-eminent American photographers. In the 26 years since the appearance of her first book of photographs, Passport, she has found a way to look at people who are in foolish situations and come out with pictures that are more complicated than satire. In the same way, she can work among people in painful circumstances and make tender but dry-eyed summations of their predicaments. The characters in her pictures can be simultaneously comical and admirable, sinister and hapless, strange and familiar. You never know entirely what to make of them. She wouldn't want you to.
Mark came of age at a moment when a lot of young photographers were looking at the unsentimental pictures of Robert Frank, William Klein and Diane Arbus and wondering whether their saturnine styles could be fitted to the warmer aims of documentary photography. Arbus, especially, didn't seem to take much interest in the people in her pictures for themselves. What she cared about was how they could function as emblems of the various beasts within us. Mark is not such a remote operator. She plainly does care about the struggling families and strenuously upbeat old people she has photographed. But if she learned a lot from the work of compassionate photo essayists like W. Eugene Smith, she has never lost touch with the part of herself that responded to the cool eye Arbus cast on the spectacle each of us sometimes makes of ourselves.
All of which has something to do with the odd power of a picture like Amanda and Her Cousin Amy. Mark knows something about the way children learn the poses of adulthood, the ones that will do them only so much good as adults. The barely postpubescent girl who flourishes her cigarette at us in a swimming pool looks as if she has already learned the ropes. Whether those are the ropes worth learning is an open question. It may even be the question in the anxious eyes of that little girl wading behind her, the one who could well be a stand-in for all the misgivings we've ever had about the ways of the world.