remembering mary ellen mark’s commitment to gritty street life
"From the beginning, I always loved the street. And I still love the street, I still go out on the street. It's a challenge to work on the street," iconic documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark said in Cheryl Dunn's 2012 documentary Everyday Street. Having spent the last fifty years shooting teen prostitutes, psych wards, homeless families, gypsy camps, and countless others on society's fringes, Mark passed away yesterday in New York at the age of 75.
"I think it's harder to be a woman than a man, I'll admit that. But I think there's also an advantage to being a female as a photographer," Mark continues in the film. "As a street photographer or a documentary photographer, I can walk down the street and I can knock on a door and someone will let me in. I'm less threatening than a man." It was precisely this ability to forge lasting relationships built on openness and trust with her troubled subjects that set Mark's striking images apart.
After photographing film stills on the set of Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Mark returned to its set — the Oregon State Mental Institution's maximum-security ward — a year later to interview and photograph the women of Ward 81 in their beds and bathtubs. A few years later in 83, Mark travelled to Seattle to photograph runaway teens on assignment for Life magazine. These images of Tiny, a 13-year-old prostitute, and LuLu, the young lesbian leader of a rough street gang who died in a stabbing shortly after meeting Mark, remain some of the photographer's most iconic.
"I think often your subject matter can show you what the picture is, can make it for you...I sort of like it to come from the people." Mark might have shot on everyday streets, but what she saw and captured on them was anything but ordinary.
Read Vice's interview with Mary Ellen on the 25th Anniversary of Streetwise here
Text Emily Manning
Photography Matthew Leifheit