People have always been central to Mary Ellen Mark’s work. Her desire and her mission is to understand and to empathise with those on the fringes of society, and we admire her commitment to “acknowledge their existence”, as she puts it.
Born in suburban Philadelphia in 1940, she got into photography at the age of nine, with a Box Brownie. At Cheltenham High School, she showed a talent for drawing and painting, which progressed to a BFA degree in painting and art history in 1962, and a Master’s in photojournalism in 1964. The next year, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to take photos in Turkey. She made good use of this as an opportunity to record life around Europe, later publishing some of it in her first book, Passport. A move to New York enabled her to photograph anti-war demonstrations, newly-emerging feminists, transvestites and Times Square.
In 1967, Mark approached Universal Studios, with the aim of shooting movie production stills, and was accepted as the special stills photographer on Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant. Since then, she has shot on the set of over a hundred films, including Federico Fellini’s Satyricon, for Look magazine in 1969. While she was at Rome’s Cinecittà, an English TV crew member told her about a controversial new English law that permitted clinics to dispense heroin to drug users. She followed it up, and the subsequent book, What the English Are Doing About Heroin, was a study of addicts shooting up.
While working on Miloš Forman’s Taking Off in 1971, she heard that his next film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was to be set in an Oregon mental institution. There was no budget for a stills photographer, so she offered to work just for expenses. She’d always wanted to shoot in a mental hospital, and “thought this was a chance for me to meet people”. Mark went back there with a writer after filming, to live in a secure women’s ward for thirty six days, producing a book called Ward 81.
1980’s Teresa of the Slums explored Mother Teresa’s Indian Missions of Charity for Life magazine. Another Life feature in 1983, the Seattle-based Streets of the Lost, became the film Streetwise, directed by her husband, Martin Bell. Like Fellini, she has a fascination with circuses, and returned to India later to follow them. In fact, she often returns to places and projects.
Her work observes outsiders such as the homeless, the lonely, the mentally ill, and prostitutes, building a relationship with those on the edge of mainstream society. She works mainly in black and white, using colour when the setting demands it, as in Falkland Road, an area of Mumbai inhabited by young prostitutes and transvestites, where self-decoration and display are, she observed, “a primary part” of their world.
Mary Ellen Mark has published seventeen books, as well as contributing to publications such as Life, New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Although she worries about exploiting her vulnerable subjects, we argue that it’s important to give a place to what she calls the “unfamous”.
Marlon Brando Photographed By Mary Ellen Mark In 1976
Dita Von Teese For Harpers Bazaar