Mary Ellen Mark is perhaps one of the best known female photojournalists. Her career has included portraiture and advertising photography in addition to her photojournalistic pursuits.
Her Early Years
Mark was born in 1940 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She recognized her love of photography at the early age of nine. Her first camera was a Kodak Brownie. She was a head cheerleader in high school and found an interest in painting and drawing.
Marks attended The University of Pennsylvania where she received her BFA degree in painting and art history. She went on to earn a Master’s Degree in photojournalism from the Annenberg School for Communication in 1964. The next year she received a Fullbright Scholarship to photograph in Turkey for a year.
Moving to New York City
Some of Mark’s best work was done when she moved to New York and started photographing Vietnam War demonstrations, the women’s liberation movement and transvestite culture. Mark explained when asked about her photographs and the subjects that she focused on "I'm just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven't had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence”
Her Film Career
Mark became a unit photographer on movie sets and focused on production stills for over 100 films including Alice’s Restaurant, Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Apocalypse Now and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Mark's involvement in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prompted her to request permission to live inside the facility where the movie was actually filmed. Mark spent two months there, befriending and photographing women who were patients. These photos were later compiled into a book entitled Ward 81.
Her Publishing Career
Mark first won attention with a photo-essay that appeared in Look magazine about heroin addicts in London, England. She landed other magazine assignments over the next few years. During Mark’s career she has contributed to many publications including, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. In addition she has published 16 books including Passport, Ward 81, Falkland Road, Mother Teresa's Mission of Charity in Calcutta, just to name a few.
Mark has been known for touching upon some very key social issues. These include homelessness, loneliness, drug addiction and prostitution. Her work is primarily in black and white.
Her images of our world's diverse cultures have become landmarks in the field of documentary photography. She has traveled extensively around the world chronicling the human condition. Her portrayals of Mother Teresa, Indian circuses, and brothels in Bombay were the result of many years of work spent in India.
Mark showed the plight of the homeless when she photographed a Los Angeles homeless family, the Damms, whom she first shot when they were living in their car in 1987. She returned five years later to their "home,”an abandoned rural property on which they were living illegally.
Mark never abandoned her subjects and often returned to further chronicle their lives years later. In 1983 she did an assignment for Life magazine spending time with runaways and street kids in Seattle, Washington. She captured the heart breaking lives of these children. These photos became the basis for an Academy Award nominated documentary film entitled Streetwise, which was later made into a movie by her film director husband, Martin Bell. Mark photographed Erin for the film’s poster and over the years she updated her portrait, showing a woman who seemed to move from adolescence directly into middle age. Mark recounted some of Erin's hardships in her book Exposure. These hardships included a drug abuse problem and birthing nine children by five different fathers.
Awards and Recognition
It is almost impossible to name all of the various awards that Mark has been given over the years. These include a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, An Excellence in Journalism award, The Phillipe Halsman Award for Photojournalism from the American Society of Magazine Photographers, a Cornell Capa Award, and a Distinguished Photographer’s Award, Women in Photography.
Mary Ellen Mark and her husband Martin Bell reside in New York City.
Mary Ellen Mark Official Website
Encyclopedia of World Biography
Interview: Mary Ellen Mark on photography