Remembering the work of Mary Ellen Mark, the photographer who changed everything

On Monday, celebrated photographer Mary Ellen Mark passed away. Over the course of her decade-spanning career, she documented the lives of society’s less recognized members in stark black and white. Her images were unflinching, striking and beautiful in their raw approach to often sensitive subject matter and disadvantaged children.

Born in Philadelphia in 1940, street photography became her passion at a young age. “From the very first moment I took pictures [on the streets of Philadelphia], I loved it,” she told Michaele Martza of the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988. “The thrill was the idea of just being on a street, turning a corner and looking for something to see. It was just an amazing feeling. … Photography became my obsession.”

It was an obsession she channeled into the things she cared about, including exposing the inequality suffered among those from disadvantaged backgrounds. She explained the draw these subjects had for her in 1987 for Darkroom Magazine:

Mark didn’t separate herself from her subjects, but rather allowed them to enter her life and mind in a way many photographers do not. Tiny, who was just 13 when she met Mark and whose real name is Erin Blackwell, became the subject of a number of powerful photos Mark took over the years, launching the young girl into cult stardom.

Mark’s impact on her life was immense, with Tiny describing her relationship with Mark and Mark’s husband Mark Bell in 2005: “It was great. … I felt spoiled when you guys would take me out to eat, or buy me things — stuff that my mom didn’t do. That felt good. I actually felt like I had a parent, somebody that cared for me.”

What’s more, the attention Tiny got through the photographs Mark took allowed her to escape a cycle of poverty. “I have a husband, Will, who takes care of me and the kids, and I have somewhere to sleep, eat, and take a shower, and I don’t have to worry about money because he works. … It’s kind of boring, but I’d rather be doing what I’m doing now than be running around downtown, looking for my next hit or a place to sleep or eat. So my life is my kids and my husband, the home. And I would never give it up for that type of life ever again.”

Today, Mary Ellen Mark is remembered for the soul of her work, the message it communicates with both compassion and honesty. Her work explores and exposes a world hidden in plain sight, one of struggle and suffering but also a beauty that often goes unseen. We’ll miss her greatly.

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