Photo Life
By Wes Lafortune
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark


Federico Fellini on the Set of Fellini Saiyricon, Rome, Italy, 1969.

Documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark was named "most influential woman photographer", in a poll conducted of readers of a leading US magazine. She's been festooned with honours ‑ including the Cornell Capa Award by the International Center of Photography and the World Press Award ‑ for her sensitive images of people across the globe.

Yet today, the 65‑year‑old photographer struggles to find work.

"There's no documentary work," says Mark. "The magazines don't call me anymore."

It's a heartbreaking situation for someone whose passion is photography. Mark has spent the past four decades doggedly taking pictures of people who exist on the fringes of society. And now, she too is an outsider peering in at a world that no longer seems to want the photographs that she produces.

It's an astounding turn of events for a photographer, who, for more than 30 years, had her work regularly published in a litany of major magazines;  The New York Times Magazine, Paris Match, The Sunday Times magazine (London), Vanity Fair, and Vogue have all featured the compelling images of this Pennsylvania‑born photographer who lives in New York City.

Yet, in the context of today's media, Mark's brooding portraits of heroin addicts, prostitutes, street kids, psychiatric patients, and the homeless hold little interest for legions of editors in charge of celebrity‑driven glossy magazines.

Mark now spends much of her time in pursuits other than what she is best known for. She teaches photography in master's degree classes, lectures (as she recently did to a full house at an auditorium in Canmore, Alta., as part of Exposure 2005‑the inaugural Banff/Calgary Photography Festival), and oversees the painstaking process of carefully cataloguing and preserving the tens of thousands of images that she has created. Images that she hopes will be scrutinized in the years ahead and will continue to be used as a standard by which other photographs are judged.

Laurie in Ward 81 Bathtub, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976.

"The work I want to be remembered for is my personal work," she says.

And it is her personal work that she will surely be remembered for; photographs Mark first began to create while still a student at the Annenberg School of Communications in Philadelphia, where she graduated in 1964, with a master's degree in photojournalism.

Awarded a Fulbright scholarship, in 1965, to take photographs in Turkey, Mark set off to discover a fascinating world beyond suburban Philadelphia, where she grew up. She spent the next 24 months wandering the globe. Greece, Italy, Germany, Spain, and England all offered this perpetual explorer the chance to observe other people up close and to photograph other ways of life.

Punctuated by stints taking stills for the movie business, such as in 1967 on the set of Alice's Restaurant, magazine editors of the day began to take notice of her striking work. Mark was soon given a prestigious assignment to photograph Federico Fellini while he was in Rome, making Satyricon. The silhouette image of the famed movie director is now hailed as one of the best photographs ever taken of him.

Yet, it has never been celebrity culture that attracted Mark to photography. Her attention has always turned to dark corners; the places where people from polite society are not found and certainly don't photograph.


Twin Brothers Tulsi and Basant, Famous Circus, Calcutta, India, 1989.

A personal world that would eventually evolve into a catalogue of work that includes more than 40,000 images of people ‑ some of whom she calls friends ‑ received a kick‑start in 1970, while on assignment for Look magazine.

For the article What the English are Doing About Heroin, Mark captured, in unvarnished reality, image after image of fresh faced Britons addicted to injectable drugs.

In one photo, shocking even 35 years after it was taken, we see Julie Bailey, a young heroin addict with a needle dangling from her left forearm as she cradles a puppy in the crook of her right arm.

From there, there was more work taking stills on movie sets, this time for Milos Forman's 1975 feature film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest, starring Jack Nicholson. Set inside the Oregon State Mental Hospital, the movie offered Mark a unique opportunity to continue taking photographs long after the feature film was completed.

She made friends with the director of the hospital and was allowed to photograph the patients in Ward 81; the institution's maximum security unit for women.

Instead of spending a few hours at a time in the ward, Mark, together with a writer, moved in for 36 days. Mark produced a stunning series of black and white photographs full of empathy for the women who were typically locked away from sight. In her resulting book, Ward 81, published in 1979 by Simon and Schuster, we no longer see the women as crazy or dangerous; they're just human beings living in tiny cells, kept behind locked doors.

The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, California, 1987.

It is this transcendent quality of Mark's photography that has helped elevate her to legendary status amongst photographers and, at one time, made her one of the most in‑demand magazine photographers. Her assignments have ranged from taking poignant portraits of Mother Teresa, in Calcutta, for the July 1980 Life magazine article Teresa of the Slums, to documenting Ku Klux Klan gatherings in Tennessee.

Because she appears to pass no judgment on those in front of her lens and seemingly has no axe to grind, she has been able to gain the trust of her subjects, no matter what their circumstances.

It's that sensibility that has allowed Mark to move with the same ease among Indian circus performers for her book Mary Ellen Mark: Indian Circus (published in 1993 by Chronicle Books) to spending countless hours in the Brothels of Bombay for the book Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay (published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1981).

Not only does mark always end up with affecting images, she gets to know her subjects as people first.

Hippopotamus and Performer, Great Rayman Circus, Madras, India, 1989.

"The last day I was there, everyone was very sad," says Mark about completing her work in Bombay's brothels where girls as young as 12 years old live and work. "They threw a party for me."

Despite being a self‑described social documentarian, Mary Ellen Mark is not a missionary with a camera in hand. Instead, she simply says of her subjects, "this is their lives."

What at first can be misconstrued as a cold‑hearted statement is in fact the photographer paying straightforward respect to her subjects. This is demonstrated nowhere better than in her book Streetwise (also a 1984 Academy Award nominated film of the same name by Mark's husband, Martin Bell) that began as an assignment from Life magazine about Seattle's street kids.

Streetwise, originally published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1985, and then reissued by Aperture in 1988, is considered a breakthrough work on the landscape of documentary photography.

Mother Teresa Feeding a Man at the Home for the Dying, Calcutta, India 1980.

On the cover of Streetwise is Tiny, a frail looking teenage girl that Mark first met on the streets of the Emerald City in 1983. Dressed for Halloween as a French prostitute in a black sleeveless dress and wearing a veil, this image of Tiny is a quixotic mix of street tough bravado and little girl vulnerability. Twenty‑two years later, Mark still keeps in touch with Tiny and still takes photographs of her.

"Tiny is a friend," she says.

Mark, a world renowned photographer and Tiny ‑ today, a poverty stricken 35‑year‑old woman with nine children ‑ are friends who now are both outsiders struggling to find their places in very different worlds.

It's a friendship that offers insight into the inner‑workings of Mark, and that underscores the intensity of her feelings over what she perceives as being shut out of future opportunities to publish further photographs of the sort of people who have filled the pages of her books and of her life.

"I'm disappointed," says Mark, referring to the state of her career. "I hope I can go on. Aren't you tired of movie stars and celebrities?"

For more information about Mary Ellen Mark and her work, go to