Award-Winning Documentary Photographer Mary Ellen Mark Passes Away
Mary Ellen Mark, who travelled the world in search of poignant stories and photographed them with a deep level of understanding, passed away at the age of 75. Her demise was caused by myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood and bone marrow related disease. She is survived by her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell. They had collaborated on Streetwise, a documentary film based on her body of work of the same name. The film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1984 and the photo series Streetwise, became one of Mary Ellen Mark’s most recognisable and iconic works. It featured homeless teenagers in the city of Seattle, USA in the 1980s and one of her main subjects was a 14-year-old girl, Tiny.
She began her career with black and white photographs working for magazines like Life and Look, photographing difficult subjects of social relevance with compassion. “I remember the first time I went out on the street alone with one of the cameras that the school (University of Pennsylvania) loaned to me. It was a small rangefinder camera called a Retina. I found some people on a busy street and started taking pictures. I loved the contact with people that the camera gave me. I was immediately challenged by the idea of expressing my feelings through my photographs,” she says in the Afterword of Exposure, a retrospective on her work, published in 2006.
On a Fulbright scholarship, Mary Ellen Mark travelled to Turkey, which resulted in the book Passport, published in 1974. She went on to publish 18 books, her most recent being Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, which will be published later this year. Her repertoire of books included Falkland Road: Prostitutes in Bombay, which came as a surprise in 1981 for being entirely in colour. Here, she photographed sex workers in their homes leading their everyday lives. Over the course of her prolific career, she has photographed Indian circus performers, the Klu Klux Klan, a maximum-security women’s mental ward, as well as commercial projects.
The photographer won several awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the George Eastman House in 2014 and an Outstanding Contribution Photography Award from the World Photography Organisation. She was also presented with the World Press Award for Outstanding Body of Work Throughout the Years.
Mary Ellen Mark will be remembered for her insatiable need for experiences and knowing people. She would often keep in touch with her subjects long after her time photographing them ended. Her seminal work has influenced the field of documentary photography. She ends the Afterword in Exposure with a simple offering, “The best advice I can give to young documentary photographers who are starting their careers is to never lose sight of their goals and to follow their hearts.”Mary Ellen Mark