“I care about people and that’s why I became a photographer.” Each of Mary Ellen Mark’s images is a testament to this statement. Street kids in Seattle, brothels in Bombay, disabled children in Iceland: Mark never shied away from reality. She focused on the peripheries of society and befriended the people she photographed. Her images may be shocking, but they are laced with compassion.
Mark died on 25 May last year. To commemorate her life and work, this month she features in two major exhibitions in New York, at the Howard Greenberg and Aperture galleries.
As student at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, Mark originally studied painting. Taking a photography course on a whim, she earned a degree in photojournalism in 1964. Shortly after, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Turkey. In 1969, she made her breakthrough with an assignment photographing teenage heroin addicts in London. In the decades since, Mark worked on a variety of assignments around the world, for titles such as Life, Paris-Match and Vanity Fair.
Her best-known body of work focused on a group of homeless children in Seattle, Washington, a city that was considered to be America’s most liveable in the early 1980s. Mark’s images were first published in a 1983 Life magazine article ‘Streets of the Lost’, written by Cheryl McCall. Feeling the story would lend itself well to film, Mark suggested that her husband, the director Martin Bell, should make a documentary on the children. Bell thus created Streetwise (1984), with McCall as the producer. It follows the lives of nine teenagers, mainly focusing on Erin Blackwell, a child prostitute known as Tiny.
During her time in Seattle, Mark forged a particularly strong bond with Tiny, who was 13-years old at the time and working to support her drug addiction. “I wanna be really rich, and live on a farm with a bunch of horses, which is my main best animal, and have three yachts or more and diamonds and jewels and all that stuff,” Tiny explains as she winks into the film camera with a coy smile. On film Tiny is jovial but Mark’s photographs capture a sense of melancholy in the teenager. The poster image for the film shows Tiny dressed elegantly in a black dress and gloves, topped with a pill-box hat whose netted veil suggests one in mourning. Her body language is defensive: she wraps her arms around herself protectively and her eyes confront the viewer, mouth down-turned.
In another photograph from the series ‘Rat and Mike with a gun’, a boy nicknamed Rat stares nonchalantly past the camera as his friend Mike slips a pistol under his jacket. Although they are armed with a weapon, Mark is able to photograph them completely at ease. “I do prefer photographing people that are unfamous because I feel that I can get closer to them and I can take photographs that are more intimate,” she explained in a documentary for CBS News in 2001.
Children always captivated Mark. She treated them as equals, rather than imposing the typical adult-child hierarchy. In 1990, she met nine year old Amanda at a school for children with behavioural problems. "She was so bad, she was wonderful, she had a really vulgar mouth, she was brilliant," Mark told British Vogue in 1993. With a cigarette in her manicured hand and a full face of make-up, Amanda and her cousin Amy posed for Mark in a paddling pool in their garden.
For Amanda, whose childhood and early adulthood were marked by drug abuse and prison sentences, Mark made a lasting impression. Now 35 years old, Amanda has never forgotten the experience of being photographed. "When she came along and took those photos, I thought, 'well, hey, people will see me and this may get me the attention that I want.' I had thought that that might have been the way out. But it wasn't," said Amanda to Washington’s National Public Radio – shortly after Mark’s death from a blood disorder in May 2015.
Another recurring theme in Mark’s work is the subject of twins. In 1998, she began an annual ritual to the Twins Day Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. Enthralled by the idea that two individuals could look the same, she always photographed twins wearing the same outfits. “Oh yeah, we wanna look alike, we do,” said 29 year-old Paula Mathis and Polly Mathis Wasdin, holding hands and posing in a scene from Mark’s short documentary film Twins (2002). The pair continued: “the perfect plan would be to have kids at the same time. That would be the perfect plan.”
While identical bar their names, Paula and Polly have renounced their individuality in favour of a common identity. For Mark, it was about drawing out the differences as well as the similarities in twins, while touching on the problematic nature of sharing an identity and drawing out the vulnerability in her subjects. “It was very, very hard for me when she got married,” Paula tells the camera.
Throughout Mark’s four decade long career as a photographer, her subjects remained an important part of her life. In that sense, she was not just a documentary photographer but also a humanist, who sought to impact the lives of the people she photographed as much as they impacted hers.