The 25th of May 2015 saw the passing of Mary Ellen Mark, an American photographer whose penchant for visual storytelling cemented her as one of the forerunning creative talents of our time. Her copious body of work consists of a combination of cutting-edge photojournalism and commercial pieces: documentary projects, portraiture of the ‘famous’ and the ‘unfamous’, as well as extensive involvement with the fashion, film, and media industries. In 2008, Mark spoke of her reluctance to go digital, adhering to her love of film photography: ‘I’m staying with film, with silver prints and no photoshop… [that’s] the way I learned photography. You make your picture in the camera’. This unique element to Mark’s work gives her pieces a certain grit and authenticity that is rarely found in modern photography.

I’m staying with film, with silver prints and no photoshop… that’s the way I learned photography. You make your picture in the camera
— Mary Ellen Mark

Mark is famous for photographing the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society. She gives exposure to people with lives very different to out own: whether it’s those in mental institutes, prostitutes or the homeless, Mark reveals her subjects in a light like never before, but with profound understanding and sensitivity.  Her work speaks volumes from a humanitarian perspective: through the lens of her camera, Mark captures and communicates the stories of those whose existence is often dismissed or ignored. However, rather than highlighting difference, Mark emphasises unity:  “What I’m trying to do is make photographs that are universally understood… that cross cultural lines,” she said. “I want my photographs to be about the basic emotions and feelings that we all experience.”

What I’m trying to do is make photographs that are universally understood… that cross cultural lines. I want my photographs to be about the basic emotions and feelings that we all experience.
— Mary Ellen Mark

With a host of awards to her name, including the most recent prestigious ‘Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award’ from the World Photography Organisation in 2014, Mark’s images have captivated audiences for the past several decades and will surely continue to do so for years to come. PETRIe commemorates the gifted photographer by recounting some of her most compelling and celebrated works.  

Ward 81, 1976 

In 1975, a magazine appointed Mark with the task of creating a story on the making of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which was shot at Oregon State Hospital, a mental institution. During this time Mark met the women of Ward 81, the woman’s security ward in the hospital, which was the only locked ward for women in the state. These women are labeled as a threat to themselves and those around them, but this did little to stop her; in 1976, Mark and Karen Folger Jacobs, a writer and social scientist, were awarded permission to live at the ward for a total of 36 days in order to photograph and interview the women.

I wanted to help these women make contact with the outside world by letting them reach out and present themselves. I didn’t want to use them. I wanted them to use me.

Mark explains: "I was interested in doing pictures that would stand alone. Looking back now, I feel that the pictures are almost like a scrapbook, a memory of a certain time in my life and in theirs. I wanted to help these women make contact with the outside world by letting them reach out and present themselves. I didn't want to use them. I wanted them to use me. The women had very, very strong personalities. Some of them were funny, some romantic, some social. You could label them just the way you might label your friends – this is the comedian, this is the romantic, this is the social one, and so on. The difference was that the feelings were so much more exaggerated. There's no bullshit; the emotions are pure."

Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, 1978-79

Between October 1978 and January 1979, Mark travelled to India with the intention of documenting the lives of those on the notorious Falkland Road in Bombay. The street houses the less expensive prostitutes in the area, and is famous for the cage-like dwellings where the women reside. As Mark explains: "I thought about Falkland Road for ten years. I had gone there in 1968 on my first trip to India. I went back on each of my succeeding trips. Falkland Road is lined with old wooden buildings. On the ground floor there are cage-like structures with girls inside them. Above these cages the buildings rise three or four stories, and at every window there are more girls – combing their hair, sitting in clusters on the windowsills, beckoning to potential customers. They vary in age from eleven-year-old prostitutes to sixty-five-year-old ex-madams.” Mark was engrossed with what she saw: “In October of 1978 I decided to return to Bombay and try somehow to enter the world of these women and to photograph them. I had no idea if I could do this. But I knew I had to try."

Twelve-year-old Lata lying in bed. Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Twelve-year-old Lata lying in bed. Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Kamla with a potential customer. Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978. Photography by Mary Ellen Marink

Kamla with a potential customer. Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978. Photography by Mary Ellen Marink

The girls use powder to lighten their skin- light skin to them is more beautiful. Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

The girls use powder to lighten their skin- light skin to them is more beautiful. Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Streetwise, 1983

In April 1983 Mark and reporter Cheryl McCall travelled to Seattle, Washington, commissioned by LIFE magazine to do an article on runway children. Mark writes: “One of the reasons we chose Seattle was because it is known as "America's most livable city." Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York were well known for their street kids. By choosing America's ideal city we were making the point "If street kids exist in a city like Seattle then they can be found everywhere in America, and we are therefore facing a major social problem of runaways in this country." After spending just over a month there, the women returned and their article was published in LIFE in July, 1983.

However, in late August, Mark and McCall returned to the streets of Seattle to make Streetwise, which later became an Academy Award nominated documentary. Mark explains the initiative: “Cheryl raised $80,000 from her friend Willie Nelson. The additional money needed to shoot the film was invested by the three of us. We totally believed in the project because we knew that the kids had a special story to tell.”. Reflecting on her work, Mark states “the street children of Seattle embraced the film as their own. They felt it was truly their story.”

Tiny on Pike Street. Seattle, Washington, 1983. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Tiny on Pike Street. Seattle, Washington, 1983. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

James. Seattle, Washington, 1983. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

James. Seattle, Washington, 1983. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Patti. Seattle, Washington, 1983. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Patti. Seattle, Washington, 1983. Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Words: Tara Bell

Photography: Mary Ellen Mark