Reflecting on Mary Ellen Mark

Any ‘photographer’ can capture something by being in the right place at the right time – all it takes is a fortuitous click of a shutter, and the recording of one iconic image – but few can sustain a lifetime of cogent work of repeating the same ‘trick’ of capturing something potent over and over: wherein being in the right place at the right time isn’t an accident of wishful intention, but, rather, because that photographer, at their core, was always out there, looking. Searching for that image, knowing that it came not from that 1/8 of a second, at F16; but from a life spent in places where they maybe weren’t even welcome to begin with. The trick is not to be there once: the trick is to be there time and time and time again…

In 1978, Mary Ellen Mark wasn’t welcome in Falkland Road, but – fascinated by the lives of Bombay prostitutes – she endured hostility from both the sex workers and their clients until, eventually, they simply let her in to their lives through Mark’s sheer endurance. The resultant portraits shone a lens on a hitherto unseen world.

Writing of her experience, Mark stated, ”Falkland Road remains one of the most powerful and rewarding experiences of my photographic life. Not only because of its visual richness, but also because of my extraordinary friendships and adventures with these women. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the people that I met on Falkland Road. I wonder how many are still alive. This book was done a few years before AIDS became a known phenomenon.”

Mary Ellen Mark was one of the protean photographers of her time: a photojournalist who, after her first day on the streets with a camera observed, I love this. This is what I want to do for ever.” In later years she would document the lives of the dispossessed and the afflicted (she called them, “Those who hadn’t had the best breaks in society”); her next iconic series of studies “Ward 81” were created of the patients in the women’s’ security ward in Oregon State Hospital; virtually living with her subjects for 36 days.

The pictures are strangely tender, a mix of the mundane and the profound, filtered through a haze of daily reality for the patients. Mark observed, “The women had very strong personalities. Some of them were funny, some romantic, some social. You could label them just the way you might label your friends — that’s the comedian, this is the social one. The difference was that the feelings were so much more exaggerated. There’s no bullshit; the emotions are pure.”

Maybe her essential humanism came from being a twentysomething child of the Sixties: after all, a photographer’s life dealing with the Vietnam protests; fringe gender and social identities in her beloved New York; and women’s liberation, reflected her own journey to find essential truths in a world in radical flux. Later portraits of Seattle junkies (commissioned by Life Magazine) in 1983, followed in 1996 by portraits of homeless children, showed that her empathy for the dispossessed never evaporated with age, or cynicism.

It might seems strange, then, that Mark was also equally at home in more glamorous contexts. She was the on set photographer for over 100 films, including Apocalypse Now (1979) and Australia (2008); but she seemed equally at home moving through disparate worlds. She transitioned into, and then excelled in, many creative identities and directions in her work: creating parallel commercial and artistic lives in portraiture, and advertizing.

Her portraits often hint at the rich interior life of her subjects; so maybe it’s no coincidence that she herself could splice together her own rainbow of interests: from a foundation of harsh and unflinching glimpses into the human condition to idealized filmic icons.

In 2014, the World Photography Organization awarded Mark the Outstanding Contribution to Photography. It was a timely award, a year before her passing on May 25th of this year.

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