The life of Mary Ellen Mark…
Born in Philadelphia in 1940, Mary Ellen Mark was one of the most important documentary photographers of her time. Having gained a bachelor’s degree in art history and painting and a masters degree in photojournalism by the age of twenty four she quickly found her niche following her first project photographing every day people on the streets of her home city. Having gained a Fullbright scholarship in 1964 she travelled to Turkey where she shot many of the images which would feature in her first book published ten years later.
Her talent was quickly realised and she was given assignments to Italy to photograph Fellini working on his 1969 film, Satyricon before moving on to photograph patients in an heroin rehab clinic in London. Throughout the 1970s she worked for Rolling Stone magazine, Time, Life and The New York Times including a two month assignment spent living with the female patients in a maximum security mental hospital in Oregon. This is what set her apart from most of the others. The truly great photojournalists build a relationship with their subjects and she followed in the great tradition of the pioneering Life Magazine photographers of the 40s and 50s who spent weeks and months on assignments.
She published a number of books of her work and if there was one constant it was her empathy with those less fortunate than most of us. From the homeless in Seattle to prostitutes in Bombay, small-time drug dealers to tearaway teenagers, she caught a side of her subject matter few others could or would care to see. I have admired her work for some years now and the over riding feeling I always felt about her work and that of other great photojournalists was the way in which they showed the reader/viewer just how vast and gloriously diverse this planet of ours really is. How something so utterly different from our own lives is going on right now and this is what it looks like. If one really thinks about that for a moment and considers what she and others like her did and continue to do to give us a split second snapshot of a faraway life then it makes her passing all the more poignant.
Mary Ellen Mark died on May 25th 2015 aged seventy five.