Mary Ellen Mark, whose intimate portraits of people on the fringes made her one of the preeminent documentary photographers of the last half century, died on Monday in Manhattan. She was 75.
Since the 1960s, Mark pointed her lens at social outcasts, from runaway teens in Seattle to prostitutes in Bombay and drug addicts in London. But she also did not eschew the mainstream, photographing American high school prom couples and celebrities, anything that allowed her “a sense of connection with others,” as she has written.
In the past day, there has been an outpouring of sympathy from editors and friends who had worked with Mark over the years, as she shot stories for Life, New York Times Magazine, and the New Yorker.
“She never stopped photographing the disadvantaged, and the empathy that she felt toward her subjects made her an exquisite portrait photographer,” Elisabeth Biondi, visual editor at the New Yorker from 1996 to 2011, remembers.
Born in 1940 near Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, Mark graduated with a degree in art history and painting from the University of Pennsylvania in 1962 and a master’s in photojournalism from UPenn’s Annenberg School of Communication in 1964. After college, she traveled to Turkey on a Fulbright scholarship and culled images for her first book “Passport” published in 1974.
Over many decades, Mark committed herself deeply to her subjects. For example, in her latest book, “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited,” which will come out this fall with Aperture, Mark returns to photograph the hardscrabble kids in Seattle that she met in the 1980s. She and her husband also made an Academy-Award nominated documentary about one of the young girls, a 14-year-old heroin addict, in 1984.
Mark earned the praise of art critics as well. A 2005 NPR review calls her a “brilliant and fearless artist.” Even back in 1979, the curmudgeonly Robert Hughes of the Time magazine said “Ward 81,” Mark’s photographs of a maximum-security women’s ward in an Oregon state mental hospital, was “one of the most delicately shaded studies of vulnerability ever set on film.”
Soon after publishing the landmark book, Mark joined Magnum Photos as one of the first female members of the prestigious group. But in 1981, she left and started her own studio, going on to publish 18 books over the course of her career, including “Indian Circus,” 1993; “Prom,” 2012; and “Man and Beast,” 2014, as well as several culled collections of her most iconic work.
Remembering the initial pull towards the camera, Mark wrote: “It allowed me to enter lives, satisfying a curiosity that was always there, but that was never explored before … I realized all of the possibilities that could exist for me with my camera; all of the images that I could capture, all of the lives I could enter.”
She is survived by her husband, Martin Bell.
— Noelle Bodick (@nbodick)
(Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week)