Born March 20, 1940, in Philadelphia, PA; married Martin Bell (a documentary filmmaker). Education: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, B.A., 1962; Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania, M.A., 1964.
Addresses: Agent —Lee Gross Associates, 366 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10017. Office —143 Prince St., New York, NY 10012. Website —http://www.-maryellenmark.com.
Traveled to Turkey on a Fulbright scholarship to take photographs; established New York City photography studio, 1966; with Magnum Photos (an agency), 1976-81.
Awards: United States Information Agency Grant, 1975; National Endowment for the Arts photography fellowship, 1977, 1979; Creative Arts Service Grant, New York, 1977; Page One award for excellence in journalism, Newspaper Guild of New York, 1980; feature picture story award, Pictures of the Year Competition, University of Missouri, Columbia, 1981; first prize, Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards, 1981, 1984; Leica Medal of Excellence, 1982; Canon photo essayist award, New York, 1983; Philippe Halsman Photojournalism Award, New York, 1986; photographer of the year award, The Friends of Photography, 1987; 67th Annual Exhibition Distinctive Merit Award, Art Directors Club, 1988; Creative Arts Awards Citation For Photography, Brandeis University, 1988; World Press award for outstanding
Mary Ellen Mark's stark, black and white portraits have earned her a reputation as one of America's most incisive and gifted photographers. Her images manage to deftly capture the portrait sitter's dignity and vulnerability, a delicate task given the fact that her preferred subjects are often the homeless, the loveless, or the reasonless. In 2005, four decades of Mark's work was showcased in Mary Ellen Mark: Exposure , which also incorporated her text notes relating the stories behind the photographs. The 134 images, noted a review in O, The Oprah Magazine , "reveal the beauty behind grim reality."
Born in 1940, Mark grew up in Philadelphia, and owned her first camera, a Kodak Brownie, as a youngster. She studied painting and art history at the University of Pennsylvania, but chose photography when she enrolled in graduate school at the Annenberg School of Communications, which was part of the University of Pennsylvania, because she found she did not like being confined to the studio. After earning a master's degree, she won a Fulbright scholarship that allowed her to travel to Turkey to take photographs. She roamed extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East after that, building up a portfolio of work, and returned to the United States and settled in New York City in 1966.
Mark first won attention with a photo-essay that appeared in Look magazine, a renowned photojournalism periodical, about heroin addicts in London, England. She landed other magazine assignments over the next few years, and also worked on film sets as a still photographer. Her screen-industry credits include 1971's Carnal Knowledge and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest four years later, both of which starred Jack Nicholson. The latter film, about a fictional group of patients in a psychiatric hospital and based on writer Ken Kesey's work in a Veterans' Administration hospital, won five Academy Awards in 1976. Mark's involvement in the project prompted her to request permission to live inside the facility where the movie was actually filmed, a state psychiatric hospital in Oregon. Her images of the women she befriended during her two months there—some of them locked away because they had been deemed a danger to themselves or to others—appeared in the book Ward 81 , published in 1979. This was also the title of a traveling exhibition that further boosted Mark's reputation as a trenchant chronicler of the dispossessed.
Mark has long been fascinated by India, and made several trips there to photograph its various subcultures. Her images of prostitutes in Mumbai, Falkland Road , appeared in book form in 1981, and she also spent time with the Roman Catholic humanitarian worker Mother Teresa in her Calcutta mission. Mark gained further renown for her series on Indian circuses, and the best images culled from all of these trips were included in Exposure , the 2005 retrospective volume.
Often, Mark's most gripping photographs show the exceedingly vulnerable—the underage—and her talent for capturing this is best exemplified by the series Streetwise. An assignment for Life magazine she did in 1983, Mark spent time with runaways and street kids in Seattle, Washington, and captured the desperate circumstances of their young lives with a heart-rending frankness. The photographs became the basis of a documentary film of the same name a year later, made by her husband Martin Bell, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
The movie poster for Streetwise used what has become one of Mark's most famous photographs, a portrait of Erin, a young teenage prostitute who went by the street name of Tiny. Her arms are crossed, she sports a black pillbox hat with a veil, black gloves, and a sleeveless black dress, and her mouth is set in a grim line. Mark returned to Erin's life over the years to update her portrait, and the subsequent images show a woman who seemed to have skidded from adolescence directly into middle age. Mark recounted some of Erin's hardships in Exposure , including substance abuse problems and becoming mother to nine children by five different fathers. "She has changed physically a lot, " Mark told James Bone in a Times of London interview, "but I still find her in her own way beautiful…. It's not beauty in the conventional sense. It's just this look of someone where everything is right out there. You can just feel what she feels."
Mark's other subjects include 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. One image from the later series shows their daughter, Crissy, wedged between both parents in bed. "At the center of the picture is the face of a girl literally hemmed in by a world she seems appalled to have realized is hers, " wrote Time 's Richard Lacayo. "She gazes upward from the debris with an expression somewhere between foreboding and resignation."
Other images from Mark's lens have been immortalized in books such as 1999's American Odyssey , and Twins , published in 2003. The photographs from the latter volume were culled from her recurring visits to the annual Twins Days Festival in Twins-burg, Ohio. Mark has also been honored with several museum shows over the years, including a retrospective at Manchester Art Gallery in England in 2004. Sometimes considered a social-conscience or "concerned" photographer, Mark finds these kinds of labels as restricting as the painting studio she left behind long ago. "I think concerned photographers are those that go off to war and photograph the plight of people, " she said in the Times of London interview with Bone. "I don't do that. I'm much more of a coward—always have been. I'm for the underdog. I certainly feel that it's a land of unequal opportunity. I'm interested in having people feel for the people I photograph. It's an unfair world."
Passport , Lustrum Press, 1974.
Ward 81 , with text by Karen Folger Jacobs, Fireside Books (New York, NY), 1979.
Falkland Road , Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta , The Friends of Photography, 1985.
Streetwise: Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark , University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1988; Aperture, 1992.
The Photo Essay: Photography by Mary Ellen Mark , Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.
Mary Ellen Mark: Twenty Five Years , Bullfinch Press (in conjunction with George Eastman House/Kodak), 1991.
Indian Circus , Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1993.
A Cry For Help: Stories of Homelessness and Hope , Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Portraits , Smithsonian Institution Press (Washington, DC), 1997.
American Odyssey: 1963-1999 , Aperture (New York, NY), 1999.
Mary Ellen Mark: 55 , Phaidon (London, England), 2001.
Twins , Aperture, 2003.
Mary Ellen Mark: Exposure , Phaidon Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Contemporary Photographers , third ed., St. James Press, 1996.
Independent (London, England), November 6, 1999, p. 37.
Life , February 1991, p. 2.
National Review , June 28, 1985, p. 45.
O, The Oprah Magazine , July 2005, p. 121.
Petersen's Photographic , August 2000, p. 36.
Photo Marketing , January 2002, p. 61.
Publishers Weekly , October 6, 2003, p. 78.
Time , May 29, 2000, p. 79.
Times (London, England), June 19, 2004, p. 31.
Variety , May 16, 2005, p. S18.
— Carol Brennan