Mary Ellen Mark: an Iconic Woman in Photography

Photographing the Human Condition

Mary Ellen Mark
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Mary Ellen Mark is an icon in modern photography. Her work inspired viewers for decades and she is known for documenting eclectic personalities of people around the world who would otherwise go unknown and forgotten.

Primarily working in black and white, Mark is one of the best-known female photojournalists. Many of her photographs are well-known and have a provocative style that captures her subject's story in a single frame.

In addition to her photojournalistic pursuits, Mark's career included portraiture and advertising photography. She was a regular contributor to magazines such as Life, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair.

Mary Ellen Mark left a deep impression on the photography world. She helped shape the careers of many photographers and gave inspiration to millions more. Though she passed away in 2015 at the age of 75, her legacy will not soon be forgotten as she left us with a body of work that rivals the best photographers in history.

Mary Ellen Mark's Early Years

Mark was born in 1940 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She recognized her love of photography at the early age of nine and her first camera was a Kodak Brownie. She was a head cheerleader in high school and also found an interest in painting and drawing. 

Mark attended The University of Pennsylvania where she received her BFA degree in painting and art history. She went on to earn a Master’s Degree in photojournalism from the Annenberg School for Communication in 1964. The next year she received a Fulbright Scholarship to photograph in Turkey for a year.

Moving to New York City

Some of Mark’s best work was done when she moved to New York City where she ended up living most of her life. It was here that she started photographing the Vietnam War demonstrations, the women’s liberation movement, and the transvestite culture. 

The environment of the city in the 1960s shaped her career. It also contributed to the direction of her work that focused primarily on photographing people outside the social norms.

Mark explained when asked about her photographs and the subjects that she focused on "I'm just interested in people on the edges. 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 Career on Film Sets

Mark became a unit photographer on movie sets. Her work focused on production stills for over one hundred films including "​Alice’s Restaurant," "​Catch-22," "​Carnal Knowledge," "​Apocalypse Now," and "​One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest."

Mark's involvement in the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" prompted her to request permission to live in the facility where the movie was actually filmed. Mark spent two months in the Oregon State Mental Institution, befriending and photographing women who were patients. These moving and provocative photos were later compiled into a book entitled Ward 81.

Mark also worked on a number of films, primarily documentaries in partnership with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell. Among the team's projects were the 1984 production of "Streetwise" with reporter Cheryl McCall and the 1992 movie "American Heart," which the duo wrote with screenwriter Peter Silverman.

Mark's Publishing Career

Mark first won attention with a photo-essay that appeared in Look magazine about London's heroin addicts. She landed many other magazine assignments over the next few years. 

During Mark’s career, she has contributed to many publications including, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. In addition, she published 18 books including Passport, Ward 81Falkland Road, and Mother Teresa's Mission of Charity in Calcutta, just to name a few. 

Beyond her published work, Mark's photographs appeared in numerous gallery exhibitions over her career. She also taught and lectured throughout the world.

Mary Ellen Mark's last assignment was Picture This: New Orleans. Commissioned by CNN, Mark traveled to New Orleans to capture the lives of its residents ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. The show debuted in August of 2015, just a few months after Mark's death on May 25.

Mary Ellen's Style and Social Consciousness

Mark was known for touching upon very key social issues over her career. These include homelessness, loneliness, drug addiction, and prostitution. She primarily worked in black and white and this choice added to the impact of many of her photographs.

Her images of our world's diverse cultures have become landmarks in the field of documentary photography. She traveled extensively around the world chronicling the human condition. Her portrayals of Mother Teresa, Indian circuses, and brothels in Bombay were the result of many years of work spent in India.

Mark showed the plight of the homeless when she photographed a Los Angeles homeless family, the Damms, whom she first shot when they were living in their car in 1987. She returned five years later to their "home,” an abandoned rural property on which they were living illegally.

Mark didn't abandon her subjects and she often returned to further chronicle their lives years later.

In 1983, she did an assignment for Life magazine spending time with runaways and street kids in Seattle, Washington. She captured the heartbreaking lives of these children and the photos became the basis for the Academy Award-nominated documentary film, "Streetwise."

Mark photographed Erin Blackwell (better known as Tiny) for the film’s poster and over the years she updated her portrait, showing a woman who seemed to move from adolescence directly into middle age. Mark recounted some of Erin's hardships in her retrospective book, Exposure, including drug abuse and giving birth to nine children by five different fathers.

Awards and Recognition

It is almost impossible to name all of the awards that Mark received over the years. Some of the most notable include:

  • Lifetime Achievement in Photography Award from the George Eastman House (2014)
  • Outstanding Contribution Photography Award from the World Photography Organisation (2014)
  • Infinity Award and Cornell Capa Award from the International Center of Photography (1997, 2001)
  • Distinguished Photographer’s Award, Women in Photography (1988)
  • The Phillipe Halsman Award for Photojournalism from the American Society of Magazine Photographers (1986)
  • Multiple Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards (1980, 1981, 1983, 1984)