By Janis Bultman, Darkroom Photography, Jan-Feb Issue, 1987
It was the early Sixties. Mary Ellen Mark was a graduate student, studying painting at the University of Pennsylvania. On a whim, she decided to take a course in photography. She picked up a Leica. Then she abandoned the brush forever and took to the streets.
Mark earned a degree in photojournalism in 1964 and a year later won a Fulbright to photograph in Turkey. In 1969, she landed the assignment that established her reputation as a world-class photojournalist. Look sent her to London to photograph the city’s teenage heroine addicts. The unforgettable images Mark brought back with her were just a harbinger of things to come.
Since that time, Mary Ellen Mark has undertaken just about every kind of assignment, both editorial and commercial. But she’s at her best with the “tough” ones – going to India for Paris-Match to find youthful dropouts from Western civilization or photographing the best friend of a teen suicide for Vanity Fair.
Her most memorable work documents the lives of the dispossessed; those deprived by birth of the rights and amenities most of us take for granted, touch her. When that happens she virtually moves in with her subject. She spend 36 days in a maximum security section of the Oregon State Hospital, living with the mentally ill, for her 1979 book, Ward 81. And she spent three months with prostitutes in Bombay for her 1981 book, Falkland Road.
In 1983, Life sent Mark to Seattle for photographs of the child hustlers who inhabit its streets for lack of better homes. Afterward, she returned to Seattle with her husband, documentary filmmaker Martin Bell. Seven months later, they had the raw footage for the film Streetwise.
Mark has a rare gift for engaging the trust of her subjects. They reveal themselves to her sympathetic lens to an often unsettling degree, sharing their most intimate moments, as well as rage and sorrow and brittle moments of happiness.
Home base for Mark is an airy loft in New York City. It overlooks one of the most fashionable intersections in SoHo, but that’s just chance, since it was purchased when struggling artists and warehouses still predominated in this now posh neighborhood.
A table bisects one end of the long, open room, delineating office space where Mark’s assistant answers phones on this gray workday morning. At the room’s center, three worn couches, covered with Indian throws and pillows, form a horseshoe around a glass coffee table. It displays an assortment of miniatures made of spun and beaten silver. These are just a few of the room’s reminders of Mark’s affection for India.
It is here that we talk, as classical music plays softly. She never quite comes to rest; though warm and open, she is clearly eager to be back at work.
JB: Given your original interest in painting, why did you choose photojournalism over a more formal approach to photography?
MEM: I just knew from the minute I picked up a camera that I wanted to photograph people and do social documentary photographs. I didn’t really become a serious student until then. No one could understand my passion for photography. It came out of the blue; I was never a very technical person.