“I just think it’s important to be direct and honest with people about why you’re photographing them and what you’re doing. After all, you are taking some of their soul.” -Mary Ellen Mark
Unflinching yet compassionate
Mary Ellen Mark, photojournalist, documentarian and filmmaker was known for her insightful empathetic images of subjects ranging from homeless teens in Seattle to sex workers in Mumbai to patients in a mental hospital.
The New York Times described Mark as “one of the premier documentary photographers of her generation.”
“She was a great storyteller,” said Melissa Harris, the editor-in-chief of the Aperture Foundation, who edited several of Ms. Mark’s books. “She got to know the subjects she photographed very well, and she was able to convey who they were and how they lived, as well as a sense of their interior lives. There are not that many photographers who can do that.”
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
Mary Ellen Mark was the stills photographer on the movie starring Jack Nicholson that was based on the novel by Ken Kesey. While working on the film made at the Oregon State Hospital, she discovered Ward 81 where mentally disturbed patients were kept in the facility’s maximum security section. After completing work on “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Mark returned to the hospital where she lived with them for 36 days sharing their moods and photographing them.
“Instead of the 1-2-3-4 of a picture story, I was interested in doing pictures that would stand alone,” she recalls. “Looking back now, I feel that the pictures are almost like a scrapbook, a memory of a certain time in my life and in theirs. I wanted to help these women make contact with the outside world by letting them reach out and present themselves. I didn’t want to use them. I wanted them to use me.”
Ward 81 show
An exhibition of Mary Ellen Mark’s photos of the mental patients was shown in Manhattan in 1978. The connection Mark developed with the patients resulted in images that portrayed human beings in extreme circumstances. These sensitive photos are a distinct contrast to the pictures of freakish subjects by Diane Arbus.
“Apocalypse Now,” “Satyricon” and “Tootsie”
Mary Ellen Mark worked on more than 50 films over a span of 40 years — “Carnal Knowledge” with Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel and Candice Bergen (1971), “Marathon Man” with Dustin Hoffman and Sir Lawrence Oliver (1976), “Night Moves” with Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson (1975) and “On Golden Pond” with Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn (1981) to name a few.
Mary Ellen began making photographs of homeless young people in Seattle in 1983. These fiercely independent and troubled teens were getting by on the streets as pimps, panhandlers, minor drug dealers and prostitutes. The photos were first printed in Life magazine. They were printed in the book “Streetwise” (1988). One of her subjects, Erin Blackwell, known as Tiny, dreamed of diamonds, furs, a horse farm and having ten children. Over the next 30 years, Mark photographed Tiny — from adolescent to middle-aged mom, creating one of her most significant documentaries.
Martin Bell, Mark’s husband made the Academy Award-nominated documentary also called “Streetwise.”
“Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell”
30 years after the release of “Streetwise” a new film by Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark debuted at the Seattle Independent Film Festival in May 2016. This film brings the next chapters of Tiny’s life to us.
M.E.M. on digital photography
I’m not against digital photography. It’s great for newspapers. And there are photographers doing great work digitally. When they use Photoshop as a darkroom tool, that’s fine, too. But at this point of my life, after so many years, I don’t really want to change, and I still love film.
More on Mary Ellen Mark
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