Award-Winning Documentary Photographer Mary Ellen Mark Passes Away

 

 

Mary Ellen Mark. Image source: www.maryellenmark.com

Mary Ellen Mark. Image source: www.maryellenmark.com

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.

Titled: Tiny, Halloween Seattle, Washington, 1983. From the book, Exposure, "This photograph was taken several months after I first met Tiny. My husband, Martin, returned to Seattle to make Streetwise, a film about street kids in which Tiny is the main character. This photograph was taken during his final days of shooting. It was Halloween, and Tiny had pieced together her costume. In her own words, she wanted to look “like a French whore.” Image Source: www.maryellenmark.com

Tiny, Halloween Seattle, Washington, 1983. From the book, Exposure, “This photograph was taken several months after I first met Tiny. My husband, Martin, returned to Seattle to make Streetwise, a film about street kids in which Tiny is the main character. This photograph was taken during his final days of shooting. It was Halloween, and Tiny had pieced together her costume. In her own words, she wanted to look “like a French whore.” Image Source: www.maryellenmark.com

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.

Kamla behind Curtains with a Customer, Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978. From the book, Exposure, “This is a photograph of Kamla, Saroja’s favorite girl, with a customer.  She was laughing and playing, and he just happened to put his hand on her face at the right moment.” Image Source: www.maryellenmark.com

Kamla behind Curtains with a Customer, Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978. From the book, Exposure, “This is a photograph of Kamla, Saroja’s favorite girl, with a customer. She was laughing and playing, and he just happened to put his hand on her face at the right moment.” Image Source: www.maryellenmark.com

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.

Laurie in the Bathtub, Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Oregon, USA, 1976. From her book, Exposure, "One morning we were all sitting in the community room. Karen (a writer accompanying Mary Ellen Mark) put her keys down on the table and started speaking with one of the patients. When she turned around, the keys were gone. I’ve never been more embarrassed. It turned out that the passkey to the ward was a passkey for the entire hospital. When you’re working on a project like this, it’s important not to disrupt the routine of an institution. The staff hated our presence anyway. Now we were really in deep trouble. All the women were sent to their rooms. They had to stay there until the key was returned. They felt angry and betrayed and banged on their doors. I felt like an idiot. Finally, Laurie, a sweet, soft-spoken girl, admitted to taking the keys. She looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “The keys are the name of the game, Mary Ellen.” After that, Karen and I returned our ward keys to the hospital." Image Source: www.maryellenmark.com

Laurie in the Bathtub, Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Oregon, USA, 1976. From her book, Exposure, “One morning we were all sitting in the community room. Karen (a writer accompanying Mary Ellen Mark) put her keys down on the table and started speaking with one of the patients. When she turned around, the keys were gone. I’ve never been more embarrassed. It turned out that the passkey to the ward was a passkey for the entire hospital. When you’re working on a project like this, it’s important not to disrupt the routine of an institution. The staff hated our presence anyway. Now we were really in deep trouble. All the women were sent to their rooms. They had to stay there until the key was returned. They felt angry and betrayed and banged on their doors. I felt like an idiot. Finally, Laurie, a sweet, soft-spoken girl, admitted to taking the keys. She looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “The keys are the name of the game, Mary Ellen.” After that, Karen and I returned our ward keys to the hospital.” Image Source: www.maryellenmark.com

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: There is nothing more extraordinary than reality from Leica Camera on Vimeo.

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