Mary Ellen Mark, one of the great American social documentary photographers of the second half of the 20th century, passed away last Monday of myelodysplastic syndrome at the age of 75.
Although she ranged as far afield as fashion and advertising photography on occasion, her most famous photographs were intimate extended documentary projects of people at the fringes of society, such as Erin "Tiny" Blackwell, the Seattle street kid whose life Mark documented for more than 30 years.
Since her death the Internet has exploded with articles, announcements, obituaries and tributes. The New York Times obituary quoted Mary Ellen herself (originally printed in Communication Arts in 1997): "I remember the first time I went out on the street to shoot pictures. I was in downtown Philadelphia and 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.' There was never another question."
In a short personal reminiscence at The New Yorker, Adrian Nicole Leblanc wrote, "I thought professional distance in documenting hardship meant not showing the joy in doing the work that I loved. The ego in that assumption would take years to unpack, but Mary Ellen opened a door for me. She was a master photographer and an actualized human being. I am very lucky to have witnessed her at work."
Her work was published in innumerable magazines and she published nineteen books, including a title in the Photography Workshop series (recommended), Marianne Fulton's retrospective 25 Years (the earlier An American Odyssey 1963-1999 is very expensive now), and Cry for Help: Stories of Homelessness and Hope. Her other books explored prostitutes in Mumbai, the patients of a mental institution, and an Indian circus, but she also published a book of photographs taken on movie sets and one called Prom.
Her natural form was the photo essay, and a friend of mine who encountered her on the street in New York a few years ago reported that she complained bitterly about the lack of work and the dearth of serious venues for photo essays.
Her original book about Tiny Blackwell, Streetwise, is unobtainable to mortals, but the follow-up, Tiny, Streetwise Revisited, is scheduled to be released by Aperture in the Fall.
Hank Burchard, writing in The Washington Post in 1994, said, "One picture by Mary Ellen Mark is almost too many, yet a hundred of her photographs is not enough. Few photographers have ever had both the visceral impact and the intellectual depth of Mark."
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Featured Comments from:
Robert Hudyma: "I met her briefly twice: once in New York City in 1992 for a slide-show presentation of her circus images, and again in 2007 when she came to Ryerson University in Toronto to give one of the final Kodak Canada sponsored lecture series. Unfortunately her lecture was cut short since there was a fire alarm and that is the last time I saw her. You can watch her lecture here. I especially enjoy her Christmas dog images."
Richard Rodgers: "Had the opportunity to study and learn from the young Mary Ellen in late 1960s while staying at Apeiron in upstate New York. Among the many joys was a day spent with her while we photographed a country fair. Still retain and use many of the skills learned from that time. She was and still is a very important person in my life."
JK: "The day after Mary Ellen Mark died I spent a couple hours watching video interviews she had done. I especially liked this one. Her famous shot of Fellini comes at the end but there are couple other nice ones along the way."
Stan B.: "No matter her subject matter, you always knew she would create strong, compelling compositions full of empathy and passion. The epitome of the dedicated documentary photographer, she was the antithesis of today's fly-by, sound-bite journalists. And every one of her essays serve as a 'how to' for photographers who want to know how it's done—technically, aesthetically, humanely."
Jim Hughes: "The photograph of Mary Ellen that you use to lead off your tribute was made by her long-time friend Ralph Gibson, according to the credit below the picture in the Washington Post obituary. [Jim's comment was written before the correction appeared; Steve Rosenblum mentioned it earlier today. —Ed.] I hadn't previously seen this image, but I have seen others Ralph made with Mary Ellen, including this famous one of his left hand touching hers, their fingers entangled at the moment of exposure:
I published this picture in Camera 35 as part of the first large magazine portfolio from his then upcoming book The Somnambulist.
"I met Mary Ellen in 1967. I remember a beautiful woman passing in the hallway outside my open office door, carrying a large portfolio. Turns out she had just returned from six months photographing in Turkey on a Fulbright. The office next to mine was occupied by Mary P. R. Thomas, whose job it was to select photographs for the U. S. Camera Annual. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me, and I went next door to look in. There were deeply printed photographs of people, most of them looking directly at the photographer as if they were lifelong friends, spread out to cover every surface of Mary Thomas's office. In the text to accompany Mary Ellen's portfolio in the 1968 edition of the Annual, Mary Thomas wrote: 'Mary Ellen Mark is a torrid combination of youthful energy and curiosity plus an innate sense of perception that enables her to see and "frame" the scene or subject before her almost immediately....All these photographs portray great beauty and strength. Look at them carefully.'
"Mary Ellen and I remained friends over the subsequent many years, and I had the privilege to publish her wonderful pictures in various of my magazines. I will miss her. And I will continue to look carefully at her pictures, which live on."
Kathy Li: "Just want to also point folks to Kyle Cassidy's LJ post on what he learned from Mary Ellen Mark."