“I want to be a voice for the unfamous people. Those are the people who interest me. Whether it’s a guy in Miami Beach who goes to a dance or it’s someone who’s dying in Ethiopia, they’re the unfamous people that I care about. I feel a certain purity in them that’s real, and I want to document their lives.” – Mary Ellen Mark
On May 25, Mary Ellen Mark, one of the most talented documentary photographers of her generation and one of the world’s warmest, most generous human beings, passed away.
Mark began making photographs in 1962 while a graduate student in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. After earning her degree, she spent 1965 traveling in Turkey on a Fulbright scholarship and then continued photographing throughout Europe for another two years. The pictures from this journey, published in the 1974 book Passport, launched her career. For the next forty years, her penetrating images of ordinary people in diverse, often challenging, circumstances earned her the respect of her peers and the admiration of international audiences.
She photographed the beneficiaries of Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity in India, runaway teenagers in Seattle, patients in an Oregon mental institution, homeless families living in New York State shelters, disabled children in Iceland, and American high school students at prom. Her approach was profoundly humanist, emphasizing the emotional bonds that tie people together without resorting to sentimentality.
Mark was tough yet compassionate, endlessly curious yet single-mindedly driven when it came to her photography. This combination of traits allowed her to establish the distinctive rapport with her subjects that suffuses all of her images. Her relationships with the people she photographed often continued well beyond a project’s completion.
Mark’s dedication—the result of her desire “to let my photographs be a voice for people who have less of an opportunity to speak for themselves”—produced a tremendous body of work, which is chronicled in more than fifteen books and hundreds of magazine essays.
George Eastman House has long recognized her achievements; the museum presented her first retrospective exhibition in 1991, Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years, which traveled to twelve venues in the United States and abroad. The museum, which holds 150 of her photographs in its collection, also honored Mark with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
My own appreciation for her work began when I first encountered her photographs of Tiny in Streetwise and then discovered Ward 81. Profoundly moving and without a trace of the cloying mawkishness found in the work of less accomplished photographers, these two bodies of work lodged themselves in my memory and, I think, permanently changed my worldview. I struggle to think of any other photographer who so poignantly captures human vulnerability while circumventing—seemingly effortlessly—the dangerous terrain of exploitation. Mary Ellen Mark’s unique combination of eye and heart will be sorely missed.