Mary Ellen Mark, Who Photographed Celebrities and the Downtrodden, Has Died at 75

Her holiday parties were legendary.

Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark. Via maryellenmark.com

American photographer Mary Ellen Mark, whose subjects ranged from movie stars to Mumbai prostitutes, died Monday at a New York hospital at the age of 75 from MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome). Mark practiced photojournalism and portraiture as well as commercial advertising photography. Her work was featured in publications including Life, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair. She had taught a workshop for New York photography nonprofit Aperture as recently as this spring.

Mark traveled the world to pursue her subjects, often those without a voice. She published the book Photographs of Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity in Calcutta in 1985; Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay in 1981; and Ward 81, with photographs taken at a women’s ward in the Oregon State Mental Institution, in 1979.

She liked to portray “people on the fringes,” she told ArtNews in a 1989 interview. “People who haven’t had as much of a chance.”

Mary Ellen Mark, "Rat" and Mike with a gun, Seattle, Washington, 1983

Mary Ellen Mark, “Rat” and Mike with a gun, Seattle, Washington, 1983.
Photo: Courtesy Falkland Road, Inc. / Mary Ellen Mark Studio & Library.

“Ms. Mark records often sad, and always difficult, situations in images that are both emotional and highly sensuous; moving in close to her subjects, she brings tactile immediacy to both the seductive and the repulsive,” Siri Huntoon wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 1992, adding, “The photographer’s strength lies in her ability to unite the humanity of her subjects with the formal imperatives of art.”

Perhaps her best-known project started in 1983, when she began to photograph homeless youth in Seattle. The resulting photo essay, Streetwise, was published as a book and became the basis for a film of the same name, directed by her husband, Martin Bell. In 1985, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. Mark continued to photograph “Tiny,” a young prostitute, over the following 30 years.

Mark was known for shooting on the sets of many films, including Apocalypse Now, Satyricon, Mississippi Mermaid, and Catch 22. Photos from those shoots were collected in Seen Behind the Scene, published by Phaidon in 2008. She also photographed advertising campaigns for clients including Coach, Heineken, Keds, Nissan, and Patek Philippe.

“She excelled at biting into a project and not letting go,” International Center of Photography deputy director Philip Block told artnet News. “She was a brilliant blend of an imaginative artist and a great businesswoman. She was able to balance the two worlds seamlessly. She also had a holiday party where she would shoot a picture of you and your dog, right there in the studio.”

Mary Ellen Mark, Tiny in her Halloween costume, Seattle, Washington, 1983

Mary Ellen Mark, Tiny in her Halloween costume, Seattle, Washington, 1983.
Photo: Courtesy Falkland Road, Inc. / Mary Ellen Mark Studio & Library.

Mark published 18 books since 1974. Her most recent was Prom (2012), for which she photographed 13 proms across the United States.

Among the accolades she received was the 2014 Lifetime Achievement in Photography Award from the George Eastman House and the Outstanding Contribution Photography Award from the World Photography Organisation. She also received the Cornell Capa Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Center of Photography, a Fulbright scholarship, and a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, among numerous other awards and grants.

Mary Ellen Mark, Beautiful Emine posing, Trabzon, Turkey, 1965.Photo: Courtesy Falkland Road, Inc. / Mary Ellen Mark Studio & Library.

Mary Ellen Mark, Beautiful Emine posing, Trabzon, Turkey, 1965.
Photo: Courtesy Falkland Road, Inc. / Mary Ellen Mark Studio & Library.

Earlier this spring, Mark spoke to Time for the series “The Photo That Made Me,” about Beautiful Emine posing, Trabzon, Turkey, a 1965 photo she took of a nine-year-old girl that she felt represented a breakthrough: “Often you look for the cliché and what you think makes a picture. This was the first time I felt I went beyond that. I thought this photograph transcended the image and had an edge.”

The artist had solo exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and New York’s International Center of Photography. She also had gallery solos at venues such as Minneapolis’ Weinstein Gallery, and New York’s Staley-Wise Gallery and Marianne Boesky Gallery. Her work is included in museum collections such as the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Born in Philadelphia in 1940, Mark earned a BFA in painting and art history at the University of Pennsylvania in 1962 and an MA in photojournalism from the university’s Annenberg School for Communication in 1964. Her first solo exhibition was in 1976, at Photographers Gallery, London. She lived and worked in New York.

Mary Ellen Mark, Kamla behind Curtains with a Customer, Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978

Mary Ellen Mark, Kamla behind Curtains with a Customer, Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978.
Photo: Courtesy Falkland Road, Inc. / Mary Ellen Mark Studio & Library.

Mary Ellen Mark, The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, California, USA 1987

Mary Ellen Mark, The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, California, USA 1987.
Photo: Courtesy Falkland Road, Inc. / Mary Ellen Mark Studio & Library.

Mary Ellen Mark, Mother Teresa at the home for the Dying, Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity, Calcutta, India, 1980

Mary Ellen Mark, Mother Teresa at the home for the Dying, Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity, Calcutta, India, 1980.
Photo: Courtesy Falkland Road, Inc. / Mary Ellen Mark Studio & Library.

 


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