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 Mary Ellen Mark's death the Internet has exploded with 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, Christina Llerena 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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