Photographer Mary Ellen Mark
Photography has a long history. During that history it has attracted diverse photographers who have kept the practice alive, exploring what it is capable of and leaving their mark. Photographers both well-known and lesser-known have long used photography to create a record of the world around them and the people in it.
Few have had as great an impact on this style of photojournalism as Mary Ellen Mark. Through the use of her skill, photographer Mary Ellen Mark has left behind both a sympathetic testament to her subjects and a guidepost for future photographers to discover how they may also contribute to the development of photojournalism.
Education And Early Career
Mary Ellen Mark received a bachelor’s degree in painting and art history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1962, and a Master’s in photojournalism in 1964 from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. From the outset, Mark’s style of photojournalism showed influence from photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Mary Ellen Mark balanced her early photographic career between the commercial work she produced for magazines like LIFE and Rolling Stone with her documentary work. For her documentary work, Mark mainly photographed in black and white. The first of her numerous books is titled “Passport” and published in 1974. Nineteen more books would be published during her career.
Throughout her work, Mary Ellen Mark was always a documentarian of the human condition. Her style of photography was straightforward and honest. In her choices of subject, by her own admission, Mark chose those who live on the edges, or “fringes”, of society. In choosing to document with care and honesty people who live outside of the boundaries of mainstream photography Mark revealed them to be no different from anyone else. Mark’s work is a testament to the basic humanity of everyone.
Like many photojournalists of her era and today, Mark’s work was largely shot in black and white. A notable exception was the photo book Falkland Road which documented the lives of prostitutes in Bombay India.
Mary Ellen Mark’s work took a particular interest in children. Much of her work revolved around homeless children on the streets of Seattle as well as youth throughout America and abroad. This would lead to long-term relationships including years photographing one of her subjects, “Tiny” (Elizabeth B) during her time in Seattle.
Mary Ellen Mark’s photography featured a direct style. The subject’s gaze is always directed toward the camera engaging both the photographer and the viewer. Some subjects smile, some don’t. For the viewer, there is always a confrontational aspect to the photograph as if to say, “Here I stand. Take me as I am.” The result is a powerful testament that speaks to the power photography can wield.
Mark’s photographed subjects in their own environments, whether it was the streets of Seattle, the grounds of a circus, or a brothel. Marks understood that people are largely tied intimately to their surroundings.
Mary Ellen Mark left a legacy for future photographers that is founded on her contribution to the craft. In her work lies the recognition that honesty and directness are excellent tools for the photographer. Additionally, the understanding that the subject of a photograph does not need to be “pretty” in order to be meaningful or powerful. Fan of her work or not, there is a lesson in the life and work of Mary Ellen Mark for everyone making photographs today.