Mary Ellen Mark’s empathy, humanity, penetrating vision, and commitment to those she photographed and their stories distinguished both her work, and her voice as a photographer. Everything about her work was personal – never judgmental – intimate, while at the same time speaking to larger truths about otherness, poverty, and class.
Image: Joshua Kogan, Mary Ellen Mark, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, 1996
Mary Ellen Mark achieved worldwide renown as a documentary photographer for her unflinchingly honest and compassionate photographs of difficult subject matter, whether in the brothels of Mumbai or the streets of Seattle. Her first book, Passport, shot primarily in Turkey on a Fulbright scholarship, drew attention and admiration for her humanistic approach to documentary photography. Her next book, Ward 81, reflected the two months she spent at a maximum-security ward of a state mental hospital in Oregon. Time’s photography critic, Robert Hughes, called it “one of the most delicately shaded studies of vulnerability ever set on film”. Her portrayals of Mother Teresa, Indian circuses, and brothels were the product of many years of work in India. A photo essay on runaway children in Seattle became the basis of a book Streetwise, and later an academy award nominated film of the same name directed and photographed by her husband, Martin Bell. Her images of our world’s diverse cultures have become landmarks in the field of documentary photography.
Mary Ellen Mark published over twenty books throughout her lifetime. She exhibited widely and received numerous awards. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards among many others. In 2014, she received the Lifetime Achievement in Photography Award from the George Eastman House.
Her last book Tiny: Streetwise Revisited is a culmination of 32 years documenting Erin Blackwell, whom she first met in 1983 on assignment for LIFE. Erin was the original subject of both the book and film Streetwise. Martin Bell then produced an updated film, TINY: The Life of Erin Blackwell.
Mary Ellen Mark died in 2015 at the age of seventy-five.