In May 2015, still in the prime of her career, my guru, photographer Mary Ellen Mark passed away at 75 years young from a disease that affected her bone marrow and blood.
Her story is that of a woman who was possessed…possessed of conviction, strength and a great great talent. Through her viewfinder, she sought to define what it meant to be human. Her work was always about people. Her photos gave a human face to homelessness, drug abuse, runaway kids, circus performers and women in a maximum security ward for the mentally ill, endeavoring to understand something about the lives of those on the fringes of society, the outcasts of the world.
‘I have an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society,’ she told the New York Times Magazine in 1987. ‘I’m always on their side. I find them more human maybe.’
For all the hopelessness and heartbreak in her images, Mark did not depict her subjects as oddities or specimens. They are merely other human beings driven by circumstances to the ragged edges of society.
‘It’s not when you press the shutter, but why you press the shutter,’ said Mark.
Mary Ellen was born March 20, 1940 in Philadelphia. Her father was an architect. She graduated from the U of Pennsylvania in 1962 and got her master’s in photojournalism two years later.
She was drawn to the photography of Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith and Diane Arbus and began travelling around the country with a camera in graduate school. Along with Arbus and her contemporary Annie Leibovitz, Mark became one of the most renowned female photographers in a largely male field.
She published the first of her 18 books in 1974 and financed her photojournalism projects by taking still photographs on the sets of movies, including Apocalypse Now. Later as magazines began to publish fewer photographs, she took assignments for advertising and celebrity portraits. Her photographs are in collections of many major museums.
Many of Mark’s most remarkable images come in a series of photographs of runaway children in the early 1980’s. Abandoned or simply forgotten, they lived on their wits, eating out of garbage cans, taking drugs and brandishing guns.
Mary Ellen Mark’s images of our world’s diverse cultures have become landmarks in the field of documentary photography. She had travelled extensively around the world chronicling the human condition.
In 1983 she did an assignment for Life magazine spending time with runaways and street kids in Seattle, Washington. These photos became the basis for an Academy Award nominated documentary film entitled Streetwise, which was later made into a movie by her film director husband Martin Bell.
Mark photographed 14-year old prostitute Erin ‘Tiny’ for the film’s poster and over the years she updated her portrait, showing a woman who seemed to move from adolescence directly into middle age.
Much of the time, ‘Tiny’ stayed at the home of her alcoholic mother who seemed unfazed by her daughter’s prostitution, calling it ‘a phase’.
Mark recounted some of Erin’s hardships in her book Exposure. The hardships included a drug abuse problem and birthing 9 children by 5 different fathers.
In 2014, Mary Ellen Mark was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Photography by the World Photography Organisation at the Sony Awards in London and a lifetime achievement award from George Eastman House in New York.
‘I care about people and that’s why I became a photographer,’ she once said.
Her empathy showed through in all her work.
‘I think photography is closest to writing and not painting,’ Mark once said, ‘because you are using a machine to convey an idea.’