Mary Ellen Mark: Human-Wise

Mary Ellen Mark (Credit: Ralph Gibson)
Mary Ellen Mark (Credit: Ralph Gibson)


In his book Why People Photograph, Robert Adams, a master photographer of contemporary Western landscapes, writes, "At our best and most fortunate, we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are." It is not a reach to understand his reflection when your subject is the grandeur of Nature (even in its present lamentable state), but it is a reach when your subjects are searing portraits of “losers,” the marginalized and the outcasts of society who were the hallmark subjects of Mary Ellen Mark’s career. Her 17 books, with the exception of her portrait essay of filmmakers, Seen Behind the Scene (2008), are deeply moving documents of the disadvantaged,  infirm, addicted and exploited — "losers" in the relentless drive for economic success that defines life today.

There is no photographer whose work so embodies the selfless axiom of honoring “what is greater and more interesting.” Mary Ellen Mark died on May 25, still so young in spirit, at 75. Her career-long commitment to witnessing and honoring the lives and plights of people living on society's margins  is unique in the roll call of today’s best photographers. She did not so much follow the trials and troubles of Third World peoples, as does Sebastião Salgado, or the desperation of those in conflict zones, as have Jim Nachtwey and the late Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. Mary Ellen’s subjects were mostly closer to home, from the inhabitants of an Oregon women’s mental institution, Ward 81 (1981), to the homeless children on Seattle’s streets in Streetwise; or from a July 1983 photo essay for Life Magazine


… to Prom (2012) and her soon-to-be-published Streetwise Revisited.

But she did travel widely: Consider Man and Beast, about her work in 2014 in Mexico and India, and her early, blazing color portraits (a rare use of color) of young prostitutes in the photo essay Falkland Road (1981).

3. 13 year old Putla 1978
13-year-old Putla, 1978

As anomalous as it might seem, Mary Ellen’s 2008 book of filmmaker portraits spans most of her career, going back to an early assignment from Look magazine in 1969 to photograph Federico Fellini and the crew on the set of Satyricon. One of her most famous images is of the great Italian director arched in silhouette, shouting through a megaphone. The popularity of this photograph came to bother her; it was so often reproduced that she felt it became a distraction from her more important work.

4. satyricon

Less well known from the Satyricon project is the photo of Fellini and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno. Mary Ellen’s photo captures the intimacy between the two friends, even amid the helter-skelter that was normal on a Fellini set. Satyricon was the first of Fellini and Rotunno’s half-dozen collaborations.

5. rotunno & fellini. 1969

Mary Ellen discussed how she worked amid the whirlwind that was Fellini in an interview featured on The Criterion Collection’s DVD of Satyricon.

Because Mark photographed more than a hundred movie productions and was always given free rein to photograph what interested her, it’s no surprise that the results are not in the glossy, puff-piece mode. She often recorded offbeat and intimate portraits, such as this one of Connie Hall on his island in French Polynesia:



I first met Mary Ellen on the set of an almost forgotten John Schlesinger film I photographed in 1981, Honky Tonk Freeway, a road movie following unlikely travelers as they descend on the fictional central-Florida town of Ticlaw, painted pink to lure tourists and featuring a ballyhooed water show with a water-skiing elephant.

7.honky tonk 1980

Mary Ellen’s assignments involved many of our greatest directors; they included seven films with Tim Burton. She didn’t view her film work as something she did only for the money; she took the same avid interest in the dysfunctional society of a film crew as she did any other marginalized group.

I feel very lucky to have worked on so many film sets. I’ve watched the greatest directors direct the finest actors. I’ve seen brilliant costume designers and set designers at work, and beautifully written scripts translated into magical cinema. I’ve watched amazing cinematographers light a scene and move the camera to tell the story. I’ve been in awe of dedicated crew and technicians working long hours in the most difficult situations. I’ve witnessed creative and powerful producers pull this whole complex circus together and, in the end, make great films …. My own experience of observing this world has helped me immensely in my work outside of it, whether it’s directing my subjects, finding the best way to use light, working with stylists, or producing a project. I’ve watched the greatest of the great work, and they have inspired me. 

Mary Ellen was not just a visitor on film sets. Along with her husband, director Martin Bell, she co-produced documentary films of her photo essays, and in 1984 Streetwise received an Academy Award nomination. The couple was working on an updated film and book of this work that will be published later this year.

Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell

Mark's energy, spontaneity and gracious love of people pervade a short profile piece she did for the lighting company Profoto. If you look carefully, you’ll see her use the camera’s single-frame manual advance. Not only did she carefully consider each exposure as she worked, but she also continued to shoot on film and make silver prints long after others went digital. The photographs Carol and I have of Mary Ellen’s work are photochemical prints, including larger ones from the Indian circus series, which are platinum. In the Profoto video, she speaks of the importance of not relying on reading the digital image on the camera’s back, but on learning to trust your instincts. In an analog era, this was simply part of the learning curve. In today’s power-up, point-and-shoot aesthetic, the temptation to immediately monitor your work makes this discipline more difficult.

I experienced Mary Ellen’s commitment and enthusiasm for photography up close some years ago. She hosted an opening of her new work at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles, and she asked me to join her in a conversation with students the following afternoon. Sitting with young photographers, feeling her passion and sharing the magic of creating images was so energizing that I lamented I had chosen to work in the realm of fiction cinema. Afterwards, she generously assured me that movie making was just as important — but I have never quite believed it. My continuing love of photojournalism has its roots in that afternoon sitting next to Mary Ellen on the gallery floor.


After hearing of Mary Ellen’s death from Kim Hendrickson, my friend at The Criterion Collection, I dug out all the books I have of Mark's work.

9.WARD 81

Most of them are signed and dedicated. She signed one of them, a dog-eared early edition of Ward 81, in a small hand on the set of Honky Tonk Freeway in the summer of 1981 — and again in a bold hand “28 years later.”


In a March 11, 2015, interview with Time for its ongoing series "The Photo That Made Me," Mary Ellen recalled that in 1965, she was in Trabzon, Turkey, and encountered 9-year-old Emine on the street. She was invited to the girl’s home where she joined Ermine and her mother for tea and took this portrait of the girl. A few years ago, back in Turkey, a newspaper helped Mary Ellen locate Emine, herself now a mother, through her daughter.

Emine-Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen's and Martin's ongoing relationships with their subjects are indicative of the humanity that is so much a part of their very being. Mark was not a snap-and-run artist. One of the principal subjects of Streetwise was a 14-year-old named Erin Blackwell, nicknamed “Tiny,” whom Mark visited and photographed many times over several decades.


Here is a YouTube link to the film Streetwise:

The DVD is not easily available (do you hear that Criterion and Milestone?), but Region 2 versions are available on Amazon.

Of Streetwise: Tiny Revisited, Mary Ellen’s final work, she said:

I’m currently working on a book for Aperture on Tiny, a girl from my previous book, and my husband Martin Bell’s film Streetwise. Tiny is a young prostitute from Seattle whom I’ve photographed and Martin has filmed for more than 30 years. At the same time, Martin is making a film about her and her 10 children. Going back is something that’s always fascinating to me. I would have liked to photograph Emine again.

The Criterion Collection once asked Mary Ellen to contribute to its “Top 10” page. Her selections were all intensely humanistic, a roll call of closely focused movies by Ozu, Bresson, Malle and Fellini. Her Kurosawa pick was not one of his celebrated jidaigeki samurai sagas, but the intimate, downbeat Ikiru. She ended her comment about this meditation on aging and death with a single line that so defined who she was:

This film is about how fleeting life is and how important it is to be personally creative and to live every moment like it is your last.

In a brief talk for Leica camera, Mark discussed how she has always worked: with a quiet but focused presence. There is no better way for me to end this personal recollection than with an expression of her love for photography — even at a time when the value of the photojournalist seems to be ever diminishing in a culture obsessed with celebrities and the ephemeral. (Watch for my next post, on Kim Kardashian and "selfies.")

Despite her grace, it is difficult to overlook the melancholy underlying her reflections: that the tradition of 20th century humanistic photography embodied in her work, image creation that followed the soulful truth of artists like W. Eugene Smith and which even now resides in the heart of others, like Eugene Richards and Shelby Lee Adams, is, in fact, receding from us like an ebbing wave.

13. MEM website photo

NB: Not long after I posted this, NPR caught up with one of Mary Ellen's subjects from 1990. Listen or read about it here.


NEXT: Kardashian Selfies, Warhol Superstars and "Famehood" 


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