Mary Ellen Mark, born March 20th 1940 in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, is a photographer known for her photo journalism, documentary photography, and portraiture work. She first started shooting on a Box Brownie camera at the age of nine. She attended Cheltenham High School where she was the head cheer leader while also showing her love for paintings and drawing. Mary Ellen Mark later attended the University of Pennsylvania where she received a Batchelor of Fine Arts degree in painting and art history. She then went on to work for a Philadelphia city planning company for a while before making the decision to head back to U-Pen to get her masters in photo journalism. When she graduated her masters program, she received a photography scholarship to travel around Turkey for a year which is where she created her first published book, “Passport”. It is this book that inspired her to go on to write eighteen more books ranging from the poverty in New York to the circus in California. In the late 60’s Mary moved to New York City where her career really launched. She made a career for herself by photographing the opposition of the Vietnam War, the women’s liberation movement and the newly found transvestite culture. Mark was known for photographing people on the streets that were seen as “less than social standards”. She documented homelessness, the effects of drug addiction, and prostitution. She photographed young women and children on the streets of New York that became victim to the after effects of teen and child prostitution such as becoming teen moms, young drug users, and rape victims. In 1993, Mark was sent to rural North Carolina by LIFE magazine to photograph children seen as “the problem kids”. One of her most famous works is from this trip. A young girl named Amanda standing in a pool with her cousin Amy smoking a cigarette at the age of nine. Mark always said she was her favorite girl to photograph because she was so bad and so wonderful and she had a vulgar mouth. Mark later went to say that she, too, was “somewhat a problem child” which is what brought her to Amanda. She said
she could see in Amanda’s eyes that she was aware of the deep problems of her childhood. Amanda is now 34 years old and still tells people that the moment was riveting and to this day that, “I have never forgotten it. Never in my life have I forgotten it.” Mark has said, "I’ve always felt that children and teenagers are not "children," they’re small people. I look at them as little people and I either like them or I don’t like them. I also have an obsession with mental illness. And strange people who are outside the borders of society.” Mark was able to use this idea to create the breathtaking photos of Amanda and of the young girls around the world. Mark was also known for forming strong relationships with her subject matter. For her series titled, “Ward 81”, she lived six weeks with the women in the mental ward at Oregon State Hospital and for her project “Falkland Road”, she spent three months making friendships with the prostitutes who “worked” on a single street in Bombay. It is moments like these that make Mary Ellen Mark so special. She goes above and beyond to create a piece of art that is so fantastically put together. She does more work than what is needed, but it is exactly that that makes her work so powerful.
Mary Ellen Mark has caught the eyes of so many people around the world from young artists to celebrities through her powerful ability to create an image that is so raw and real that you feel like you are actually in the photograph. I, like so many others, was completely captivated the first time I ever saw her work. The first photo I ever saw of hers was, “Amanda and her cousin Amy”. I saw this picture and I immediately burst into tears. The photo was so incredible for so many reasons. It brought up so many questions for me that I wish I could have personally answered by Mark herself; but, it also made me realize that to be a great photographer, you do not have to have the best equipment and be in a fancy studio or even have professional models. You can create an exquisite piece of work if you just have something in front of you that is powerful and stirs up questions in the mind of your viewers.
After seeing this photograph for the first time, I knew I was going to be a photographer for the rest of my life. I knew what I wanted to be in this world and I knew that Mary Ellen Mark was the one I had to thank for that. With this realization for my own career, it made me become aware that I didn’t need to keep worrying whether or not my work would one day impact any part of the world because I am just one person, but by Marks work touching just one part of me, she was able to change my entire world.
Mark has done numerous photo series in her life, but the one series that impacted my life and my work the most is her “Ward 81” series. This series came to life in 1975 when Mark was assigned to do a story based on the movie adaptation of the book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at the Oregon State Hospital, a mental institution. Ward 81, at this hospital is the women’s ward and is the only ward for women in the state that is locked and secured.
In 1976, Mark and a writer/social scientist spent thirty-six days living with the women of Ward 81. Day to day, Mark captured everything that happened at the women’s ward from patients bathing to relaxing in their rooms to documenting the women with their self mutilation. This particular series has had the most impact on my work for a few reasons. The first and biggest reason being that I, myself, also spent exactly thirty-six days in a mental institution at one time in my life. Knowing the insider view of a place like this, it is often hard to find interpretations of it in the media that is actually accurate. When I saw this series for the first time, there was no doubt that Mary Ellen Mark truly submerged herself in her work to just the right degree to have photographs that truly encapsulated the life in a mental institution while also keeping exactly the right kind of relationships with the patients. Another reason this series impacted my work is Marks usage and reoccurrence of bathtubs. My favorite kind of photo series to do is that of women submerged in a bathtub. This fascination started with the book and movie, “Girl, Interrupted”, but the visual similarities of the film adaptation and Marks series are uncanny, so maybe my inspiration and fascination was actually drawn from both.
Mary Ellen Mark is probably most well-known for her series titled, “Streetwise”. In the making of this series is when Mark met a young girl at the age of fourteen named Erin Blackwell, or more commonly known as, “Tiny”. Tiny became Marks muse for many years to come. From young pregnancies to struggles with her family and herself, Mark caught it all. Tiny now has ten children and lives in Seattle. Mark photographed Tiny until her final days before passing in May of 2015. Tiny was the last person that Mark photographed.
This particular series is incredibly captivating because it is just so fascinatingly real. There is no staging. It is all Tiny in her true form. Raw and on display for the world to see. Marks ability to make a young girls struggles in life into pure art is truly a gift and it shows so brightly. There is no questioning why these photos of Tiny are so widely recognized and loved. These photographs are a beacon of hope, not only for aspiring artists and photographers, but for the kids and adults that can sympathize with Tiny and her not-so-perfect upbringing; or lack there of.
Later in life, Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell made a film about Tiny titled, "TINY: The life of Erin Blackwell".