From the mean streets of America's underclass, to movie set royalty, Mary Ellen Mark captured a sense of quiet dignity in her subjects, belying her innate sense of humanism and curiosity
From the 1940s until perhaps the early 90s, an empathic documentation of everyday life appeared weekly or monthly in the world’s illustrated magazines, a medium whose appeal lay almost wholly in its use of outstanding photography, by great practitioners.
It was a time, Mary Ellen Mark recalled, when “the magazines really needed photographers, especially documentary photographers. When they flourished you could bring an idea to a magazine and they would do it. Sadly that time is over”.
Nonetheless, she worked on very successfully until the end of her life, combining documentary reportage with commercial assignments in fashion and advertising and portraiture. She was as adept in the studio as in the street, and as at ease with a Leica as she was with an ultra-large format studio camera. Faithful to film photography to the end, she never felt attracted to digital: “I’m staying with film, and with silver prints and no Photoshop …[that’s] the way I learned photography. You make your picture in the camera,” she said in 2008.
Born in Elkins Park, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1940, Mark studied for a Fine Art degree in painting and art history awarded in 1962, and then a master’s in photojournalism up to 1964, where she cited her main influences as being Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Dorothea Lange. It is tempting to see the authoress of Migrant Mother as the strongest inspiration for Mark’s own life and work, which produced 18 published books and a large number of magazine essays.
Mark’s diverse and striking body of work places her directly in line with her eminent forerunners. Like them she was drawn immediately to street photography — for, as she said later, “If you can work on the street you can photograph anything – the first time I went out on the street to shoot pictures […] I just took a walk and started making contact with people and photographing them, and I thought: ‘I love this. This is what I want to do forever’.”
Much of her approach to documentary photography was honed on the streets of New York, which she made her home from 1967, and where she died at the beginning of this week after suffering from a bone marrow and blood disorder. The social and ethnic diversity of the city no doubt appealed to her, but it also offered an endless subject matter for someone who was clearly as interested in the people she was photographing as the pictures that she could make of them.
Mark’s career was punctuated by a series of decisive encounters, such as those with film directors Federico Fellini and Milos Forman, which helped to kickstart her career – and led on to more than a hundred assignments as a stills photographer (including on Apocalypse Now and Catch-22). She worked on Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), and for expenses only on Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), the latter giving her access to the mental hospital where it was filmed, where she returned a year later to spend a month photographing the residents of Ward 81, a maximum security unit for women.
The exhibition and book that followed in 1978 established Mark as a photographer of note, for her images displayed the empathy she had established with her subjects. The leading art historian Robert Hughes declared in Time that Ward 81 “is one of the most delicately shaded studies of vulnerability ever set on film”.
But Mark’s connections to film went even deeper than this. Her husband, Martin Bell, is a filmmaker with whom she collaborated on a number of projects that arose from her own documentary photography – perhaps the most celebrated being Streetwise, nominated for an Academy Award in 1984, and based on Mark’s reportage for Life magazine about prostitution among homeless street kids in Seattle.
One particular image from the photo essay – later to become a book – has become an iconic photograph, that of Rat and Mike with a Colt .45 automatic they keep for protection against men who try to pick them up or rob them.
Typically enough, Mark tried to stay close to the people with whom she had formed a tie during these assignments, and in the case of Tiny – one of the Seattle girls – remained in contact until the end of her life. Typically enough her last project was completion of another book — Tiny: Streetwise Revisited (forthcoming from Aperture), which brings the subject’s own difficult life story up to date.