In Memoriam: Mary Ellen Mark, 1940–2015

Posted by on Jun 04 2015 | Photography

“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.

Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015). Mother Teresa at the Home for the Dying, Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity, Calcutta, India, 1980.

Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015). Mother Teresa at the Home for the Dying, Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity, Calcutta, India, 1980.

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.

Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015). Laurie in the Ward 81 Tub, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976. From the series Ward 81.

Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015). Laurie in the Ward 81 Tub, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976. From the series Ward 81.

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.

Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015). Tiny, Seattle, 1983. From the series Streetwise. Gelatin silver print, printed 1988.

Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015). Tiny, Seattle, 1983. From the series Streetwise.

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.

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The Moon Imagined

Posted by on Jul 21 2009 | Exploring the Archive

James Hall Nasmyth (1808-1890), a Scottish inventor and engineer, is best known for his development of the steam hammer. After his success in engineering and industry, Nasmyth retired and spent his later life pursuing the hobby of amateur astronomy. He moved to Kent and built a 20 inch reflecting telescope, made detailed observations of the Moon, and eventually in 1874, he published a book titled  The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite. This wonderful volume is illustrated with photographs (woodburytypes) and a copy is housed in the rare book collection in The Richard and Ronay Menschel Library at George Eastman House. The book was published to demonstrate the origin of certain mountain ranges on the Moon  through erosion and age. Nasmyth and co-author  James Carpenter  believed that Lunar mountains were the result of volcanic activity, a theory that was later disproved.Plate21 Continue Reading »

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Alfred Stieglitz

Posted by on May 26 2009 | Exploring the Archive

George Eastman House is known for its rich and diverse photography collection, but often it is only the “greatest hits” that get seen by the general public.  One of the perks of working at Eastman House is getting to see photographs that might never make it into the Best of exhibitions.  I want to share some of these treasures here.

The Photography Collection holds  approximately    200 works by Alfred Stieglitz; a collection that is much requested for loan,  exhibition and research.  Within this mix of iconic photographs of George O’Keeffe’s hands and images of Lake George is a small collection of lantern slides that Stieglitz made to illustrate lectures.


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1949), A Venetian Well, 1894, Lantern Slide. © George Eastman House

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An Intro to the ARTstor Digitization Project

Posted by on Dec 03 2008 | Behind The Scenes, Other

We (Allan Phoenix and Fran Cullen) both began our careers at George Eastman House as students enrolled in the unique Photographic Preservation and Collections Management Master of Arts program, offered jointly by GEH and Ryerson University (of Toronto). Subsequent to graduation we joined the GEH staff to work on a year-long digitization and cataloging project for ARTstor, which is a nonprofit online database of art images designed to aid in research and scholarship by providing access to this and other collections.

I am a native Rochesterian and a University of Toronto graduate interested in, among other things, film history, celebrity portraiture, and (of course) photo preservation. Although neither of us began the project with any designated specialization, over the past several months I have fallen into the role of ARTstor cataloger. The most substantial of my projects thus far has involved the cataloging of GEH’s entire collection of Animal Locomotion plates.

Eadweard J. Muybridge. GALLOP; THOROUGHBRED BAY MARE - ANNIE G. ca 1884-1887

Eadweard J. Muybridge. GALLOP; THOROUGHBRED BAY MARE - ANNIE G. ca 1884-1887

Eadweard Muybridge conducted the motion studies reproduced on these pages from 1884-87. I must confess that the most entertaining aspect of cataloging the images involved extensive imaginings about the environment of Muybridge’s set when he asked his models repeatedly to enact a variety of tasks – traversing a set of set of stairs carrying different objects; hopping on one foot; dumping water over one-another’s heads – predominantly in the nude.

I am Canadian! Most recently I hail from Guelph, Ontario, where I completed my undergraduate degree in European Studies before embarking on my Master’s degree at Ryerson University in Toronto. Prior to that my career included commercial photographer’s assistant, theatre sound and lighting technician as well as being a freelance Key and Dolly grip in the film and TV industry.

At present, I am scanning a large collection of eight by ten proof and presentation prints by Nickolas Muray. Primarily made from the 1920s onward, these photographs are portraits of artists, celebrities and intellectuals living in the US during this time. Muray was a fascinating character who not only was an accomplished photographer and printer, but also a dance critic and Olympic fencer as well; he was as much a participant in the New York artistic and intellectual scene as documenting it.

Copyright, Nickolas Muray Archive

Copyright, Nickolas Muray Archive

In ensuing episodes of this blog, we intend to document snapshots of our experiences with the ARTstor digitization project, recording our observations and ruminations about the photographs with which we work. We hope that you will find the images and anecdotes as interesting as we do. Enjoy these glimpses “behind the curtain” at a small portion of the work occurring in the far back corner of the photo collection!


About our headshots: These images, featuring our respective profiles, were created by Anna Michas, Mirasol Estrada, and Alejandra Mendoza of the Advanced Residency Program in conservation at George Eastman House. They were made using a technique inspired by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s photograms.

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