Mary Ellen Mark: The Depths Of Humanity

Mary Ellen Mark has made some of America’s most iconic photographs and is widely considered one of the most important documentary photographers of the second half of the twentieth century. 

Mark was fearless in her choice of subjects, photographing people on the fringes of society, or in her own words, those “that didn’t have the lucky breaks in life”. 

She sought out female mental patients in Oregon, heroin addicts in London, prostitutes in Bombay, and homeless teenagers in Seattle. Her subject choice was often people that were abused and vulnerable; some were survivors, while others were lost souls.

I’m a documentary photographer. Reality is so bizarre, you could never think of those ideas. Fiction writers are great in the sense that they can imagine. I could never ‘imagine’ things. What I’m really great at is looking – that’s my forte – to be able to pull things from reality, to see what’s strange and real.

Mary Ellen Mark

Mark was also a portraitist, took advertising commissions and led a successful parallel career as an on-set stills photographer in Hollywood. However, it was her documentary work that resonated most with the public and influenced photographers around the globe.

In this article, we will provide an overview of Mary Ellen Mark’s work. If you want to learn more about her life and photography projects, then I recommend checking out the Mary Ellen Mark website (after you’ve read through this article).

Editor note: If you enjoy our Mary Ellen Mark profile or find it helpful, then we would be grateful if you could share it with other photographers through your own websites, social media and forums.

Mary Ellen Mark Portrait
Mary Ellen Mark in 2010

About Mary Ellen Mark

Name: Mary Ellen Mark
Nationality: American
Genre: Documentary, Photojournalism, Portraiture, Film Stills, Advertising, Street
Born: March 20, 1940 – Philadelphia 
Died: May 25, 2015 (75 years) – New York

Mary Ellen Mark Biography

Mary Ellen Mark was born in Philadelphia in 1940 to a middle-class family. She attended the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate training in the fine arts, followed by a BFA in art history and painting in 1962. 

Mark began to take photography more seriously while continuing her education at the University of Pennsylvania as a graduate student, receiving an MA in photojournalism in 1964.

After she graduated, she was given a Fulbright Scholarship and went to Turkey to hone her photography skills, this was followed by extensive travel throughout Europe. 

In 1966, Mark moved to New York City, where she lived for the rest of her life, and began to work as a freelance photojournalist. 

She traveled to India, a country that has inspired some of her most significant work, for the first time in 1968.

Elephant in India, Mary Ellen Mark
Ram Prakash Singh with His Elephant Shyama, Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad, India, 1990 © Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

Mark photographed throughout the United States, and in many other parts of the world, among them Mexico, England, India, Spain and Vietnam. 

Early on in her career, Mark achieved success as a stills photographer for the film industry. This lucrative career helped subsidize the cost of her social documentary projects. 

She shot production stills for dozens of films, including Alice’s Restaurant, Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Day of the Locust and Australia.

Apocalypse Now, Mary Ellen Mark
Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now, Pagsanjan, Philippines 1976 © MEM Foundation

Mark’s film stills raised her profile and she was soon offered assignments from magazines, including a 1969 commission from Look to create a photo-essay on Federico Fellini, who was directing the film Fellini Satyricon, which she considered her breakthrough story in photojournalism.

Her photos have appeared in magazines LifeTimeVogue, Vanity FairParis-Match, The New York Times and The New Yorker, as well as virtually all the leading photography magazines and journals. 

Mark was a member of Magnum from 1977 to 1981. In 1988, she opened her own agency.

For over 20 years Mary Ellen Mark taught photography workshops to budding photographers in Oaxaca, Mexico. 

Mark published 18 books in her career, including Streetwise, Indian Circus and American Odyssey; and her images have been published in many anthologies and exhibition catalogs.  

She received numerous awards, including the Lifetime Achievement in Photography Award from the George Eastman House in 2014 and an Outstanding Contribution Photography Award from the World Photography Organisation. 

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
Damm Family, Mary Ellen Mark
The Damm family in their car. Los Angeles, 1987 © MEM Foundation

Photography Style

  • Photojournalism, documentary
  • Photoessay, reportage
  • Social realism, subjects on fringes of society 
  • Compassionate, intimate and humanistic
  • Subjective and honest

Mary Ellen Mark specialized in social documentation as well as portraiture, working mainly with black and white film. 

While some of her editorial work involved portraits of celebrities, including actors, directors, writers, and musicians, more often Mark photographed those she liked to call the “unfamous,” people outside the mainstream whose lives are not conventionally newsworthy. 

I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. I’m always on their side. I find them more human, maybe. What I want to do more than anything is to acknowledge their existence. 

Mary Ellen Mark
Rat and Mike, Mary Ellen Mark
Rat and Mike with a gun. Seattle, 1983 © Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

Documentary Photography

She was drawn particularly to subjects whose lives play out within a troubled situation, such as addiction, poverty, or illness; and those who live in groups that function like a substitute family, such as inhabitants of a brothel or performers in a touring circus. 

The variety of her topics reflected the assignments offered to her by magazines and her own personal interests. 

She typically funded her projects through a variety of means, including grants, financial support from non-profit organizations, and selling her story ideas to magazines and other commercial outlets.

Mark liked to fully immerse herself into projects over an extended period, to fully develop a relationship with her subjects.

Here are several examples: 

  • Mark lived in a women’s maximum-security unit in a mental institution in Oregon for 36 days, resulting in the book Ward 81 (1979).
  • She spent several months on two separate trips to India in 1980 and 1981 photographing Mother Teresa and her Missions of Charity in Calcutta for a Life magazine assignment and a subsequent book
  • In 1992, Mark traveled to India and spent time with 16 different circuses during two three-month trips to produce the book Indian Circus

I saw that my camera gave me a sense of connection with others that I never had before. It allowed me to enter lives, satisfying a curiosity that was always there, but that was never explored before… I realized all of the possibilities that could exist for me with my camera; all of the images that I could capture, all of the lives I could enter, all of the people I could meet and how much I could learn from them. 

Mary Ellen Mark
Laurie, Mary Ellen Mark
Laurie in the bathtub of Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, 1976 © Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

Photo-Essays and Projects

Mark would also stay in touch with her subjects long after a project is finished. 

For example, she returned to Seattle repeatedly to photograph Erin Blackwell (better known as Tiny) who was 14 when Mark first photographed her for a photo-essay for Life in 1983. 

This assignment would later lead to the Academy Award-nominated film Street-wise (1985), which was directed by Mark’s husband, the filmmaker Martin Bell, as well as Mark’s book of the same title.

Tiny, Mary Ellen Mark
Tiny, Black Hat and Veil Streetwise, Seattle, 1983 © Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

Mark revealed the personalities of her subjects, and their relationship to their environment, and made no pretense to her objectivity. 

I just wanted to do photographs that I believed in without having any rhyme or reason or theory or having to spell out a sort of storytelling. I wanted to show their personalities – that was the thing that drew me to them.

Mary Ellen Mark

She always strived for each image, including those that were part of a photo-essay, to be able to stand alone as a single image, to sum up, and provide an insight into the life and personality of a particular subject. 

I think each photographer has a point of view and away of looking at the world… that has to do with your subject matter and how you choose to present it. What’s interesting is letting people tell you about themselves in the picture.

Mary Ellen Mark
Mother Teresa, Mary Ellen Mark
Mother Teresa, Kolkata, India, 1980 © MEM Foundation

What Camera Did Mary Ellen Mark Use?

Mark used a variety of different cameras and lenses to achieve her imagery, ranging from 35 mm to large-format 4×5. 

She used prime lenses and liked to work close to her subjects, preferring a wider field of view (between 24mm and 35mm). 

When working with the 35mm film format, Mark used a Leica M6 rangefinder camera, and the Canon EOS-1N with 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm lenses. On occasion, she used the Hasselblad X-Pan, with a 30mm lens. 

She quite often worked with medium format, and used Hasselblad cameras usually with a 60mm lens; and the Mamiya 7 with 43mm, 50mm and 65mm lenses. I have also seen clips of her using a Mamiya RZ Pro.

When shooting large-format film, she used a Linhof Technika 45 (4×5 view camera,) and Schneider 120mm, 135mm nd 150mm lenses. She also used the huge 250lb 20×24 Polaroid Land camera for a couple of projects. 

Each system does something different. I like to switch around.

Mary Ellen Mark
Henry Miller, Mary Ellen Mark
Henry Miller and Mary Ellen Mark, Paris, France 1970 (photo by Jack Garafalo)

Film Photography

Mary Ellen Mark never shot digital and was faithful to film photography right to the very end. 

I’m staying with film, and with silver prints and no Photoshop… [that’s] the way I learned photography. You make your picture in the camera. 

Mary Ellen Mark

She favored black and white over color photography. That being said, she would occasionally shoot certain projects in color, including the images made for her book Prostitutes of Bombay (1981), which show prostitutes in Bombay situated in the colorfully patterned interior rooms of brothels.

When working as a stills photographer on film sets, Mark worked with Kodak Tri-X (which she rated at 200). For her color photography projects, she used Fuji HPH and Kodak PNC films.

Amanda and Amy, Mary Ellen Mark
Amanda and her cousin Amy. Valdese, North Carolina, 1990 © Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

Mary Ellen Mark Quotes

The obsessions we have are pretty much the same our whole lives. Mine are people, the human condition, life. 

I really believe in pictures that have content. That’s where my heart and soul is.

I remember the first time I went out on the street to shoot pictures. I was in down town Philadelphia and I just took a walk and started making contact with people and photographing them, and I thought: ‘I love this. This is what I want to do forever.’ There was never another question.

I don’t think you’re ever an objective observer. By making a frame you’re being selective, then you edit the pictures you want published and you’re being selective again. You develop a point of view that you want to express. You try to go into a situation with an open mind, but then you form an opinion and you express it in your photographs. It is very important for a photographer to have a point of view – that contributes to a great photograph.

I think photography is closest to writing, not painting. It’s closest to writing because you are using this machine to convey an idea. The image shouldn’t need a caption; it should already convey an idea. 

I just think it’s important to be direct and honest with people about why you’re photographing them and what you’re doing. After all, you are taking some of their soul. 

Everyone asks me how I get my subjects to open up to me. There’s no formula to it. It’s just a matter of who you are and how you talk to people – of being yourself. Your subjects will trust you only if you’re confident about what you’re doing. They can sense that immediately.

I’m really bothered by photographers who first approach a subject without a camera, try to establish a personal relationship, and only then get out their cameras. It’s deceptive. I think you should just show up with a camera, to make your intentions clear. People will either accept you or they won’t.

I’m kind of a purist that loves reality – and that’s not the trend now. Now they want very commercial, very decorated illustrations.

I belong to a bygone era when magazines sent you out to do a thorough report. It was a more traditional kind of photography reflecting a world that didn’t want images of it to be perfect. We don’t look at the truth anymore; instead, we look at whatever reassures us. 

I don’t think you can develop or learn a way of seeing or a point of view. A way of seeing is who you are, how you think and how you create images. It is something that is inside of you. It’s how you look at the world.

I worry with every project that I’m going to fail, and when it starts to go well, and I sense that something beautiful and important and meaningful is being created, it’s a fantastic feeling.

Doing long documentary projects is harder and harder because it’s not really supported in magazines as much anymore. You have to make time for personal projects. Portraiture is kind of an extension of my documentary work.

Cindy Crawford
Cindy Crawford, Manhattan, New York, 1994 © Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

Other Resources

Recommended Mary Ellen Mark Books

Disclaimer: Photogpedia is an Amazon Associate and earns from qualifying purchases.

Recommended Videos

The Photographs of Mary Ellen Mark, CBS (2001)

Portraits & Portrayals Lecture (2013)

Helena Christensen and Mary Ellen Mark, Capture Episode (2013)

Mary Ellen Mark Photos

For more photos, head over to the Mary Ellen Mark Foundation website.

Fact Check

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Sources

Mary Ellen Mark Obituary, The Guardian, May 2015
Vogue Tribute, Vogue, May 2015
In Memoriam: Mary Ellen Mark, Time Magazine, May 2015
Remembering Mary Ellen Mark, British Photography Journal, 2015 
Mary Ellen Mark was the photographer who saw it all, Dazed, 2020
A Life Defending Humanity, Blind Magazine, September 2020
Biography, Mary Ellen Mark Foundation website

The Masters, American Photo, January 1990
The Triumph of Photography, American Photo, January 1992
Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, 2006
An American Odyssey, Aperture, 2004
Mary Ellen Mark: On the Portrait and the Moment, Aperture, 2015 

The photographs of Mary Ellen Mark, CBS, 2001
Portraits & Portrayals Lecture, 2013
Capture Episode, 2013

David

Founder of Photogpedia.com. Photography enthusiast, occasional filmmaker, part-time writer and full-time dreamer. Rediscovered photography in 2012 and have been trying to level up my photography skills since (I'm getting there) #chasingthecreative