Mary Ellen Mark
(Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia, 1940 - 2015, New York, New York)
Mark first began taking photographs at the age of nine with a Box Brownie camera, a simple and inexpensive cardboard box camera made by Kodak. She received her BFA degree in painting and art history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1962 and her MA in photojournalism from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in 1964. After graduating, Mark was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to photograph in Turkey for one year. The work she produced there caught the attention of Pat Carbine, the editor for Look magazine. Carbine hired Mark to travel to Italy to photograph Italian director Federico Fellini and then to London to photograph the city's innovative methadone program for heroin addicts. Mark's experience in London sparked her interest in "fringe" societies. Upon moving to New York, she photographed Vietnam War demonstrations, the women's liberation movement, transvestite communities and other counter-cultures. "I'm just interested in people on the edges,” she explained. “I feel an affinity for people who haven't had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence."
Mark's work, which focuses on the value and agency of human beings both individually and collectively, has a strong humanist overtone. She has employed this perspective through her practice of documentary photography to capture and immortalize significant historical moments and figures such as Mother Teresa. She has also continued to photograph and portray various counter-cultures, from brothels in Mumbai, India to homeless youth on the East Coast, as empathetic subjects.
In the 1980s, Mark shot a photo essay on the runaway children of Seattle for Life Magazine. Unsatisfied with the attention that the article generated for the children, Mark and her husband Martin Bell created the documentary Streetwise in 1983 to bring more attention to the issue. The documentary was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Film of the Year and was later adapted into the feature film American Heart in 1992.
While photographing for Streetwise, Mark met Erin “Tiny” Blackwell, a thirteen-year old runaway who supported herself through prostitution. Over the past three decades, Mark has documented Tiny’s life in a multitude of portraits. Together these images yield a rich, nuanced portrait of a troubled child’s transition from adolescence to adulthood and an extraordinary chronicle of the lives of three generations of one American family.
Mark has published eighteen books of photographs, contributed to LIFE, New York Times, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair and shot advertising campaigns for several major brands. Mark’s work is internationally celebrated and has received numerous awards, including the Akron Art Museum’s Knight Award in 1998.