Mary Ellen Mark, camera at the ready, chronicles the human condition
2 January 2000
By John Clark
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark and her 1991 shot of Arles Pearce at a Texas rodeo.

(not pictured, photograph by Thomas Monaster)


Katy and Ema in Cornwall, Conn., 1987 (above); two youngsters in Coney Island, 1983 (top).

Young Nestor in Mission, Texas, 1990.

Most people know Mary Ellen Mark, if they know her at all, as a celebrity photographer for Rolling Stone, Vogue, The New Yorker and Life.

But what's closest to her heart is the exact opposite of the cosmeticized, digitally altered, surgically enhanced images that often pass for celebrity portraiture these days. Mark loves real life. She loves the unloved, the unwashed, the undernourished, no matter how untidy or difficult the images may be.

"I love the idea of taking strong pictures, touching people, showing the lives of people who aren't as fortunate as we are, because I think it's important for people to care about them," Mark says.

This sensibility is now on display in a new book, "Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey" (Aperture, $50), a kind of "best of" culled from 35 years of her work in America. Among its subjects: children (lots of them), members of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, mental patients, Ku Klux Klansmen, anti-abortionists, skinheads, the elderly, swinging couples, leprosy and cancer patients, the homeless, transvestites, jailbirds, lovers, dogs and cats, hobbyists of one sort or another, and Santa on his lunch break smoking a cigarette.

A closer look at these images reveals the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life, the unmade beds, the sinkful of dishes, the half-empty cereal boxes and soda bottles. In one picture, an open refrigerator contains not only eggs but also sneakers and toilet paper. In another, a night stand displays a Christ figurine, a signet ring and a hash pipe. There are many, many bad haircuts.

If all this sounds relentlessly bleak or, worse, exploitative and condescending, it is not. Though Mark admits she has a point of view, the photos, even of the Klansmen, are nonjudgmental.


Many of these people are cast to the margin by their age, ethnicity, economic status, sexual preference or their obsessions, but somehow they're muddling through. This, she says, is just as much America as the diet of images we normally consume.

"I don't think that people are that used to seeing pictures like this anymore," Mark says. "Reality is something that's exotic. We're basically seeing more fantasy in magazines, the fantasy of beautiful girls and beautiful clothes. But that hard‑core reality of what life is is not as often seen, these days."

There is something '60s about Mark. She looks the part, wearing her long dark hair in pigtails, and with miles of bracelets on each arm. She refuses to give her age, though a guess would put her in her 50s -- "Age isn't important," she says, eager to move on.

She was raised in Philadelphia, went to the University of Pennsylvania and then attended the Annenberg School for Communication. She started out as a painter, but once she went out on the streets with a camera, she was hooked. Over the years, New York has provided fertile territory--with Coney Island a special magnet, along with the city's homeless shelters.

In the '70s, Mark produced a book on a mental institution (which was introduced to her when she documented the filming of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") and another on circuses in India. She's published 11 books in all.

Yet all is not well for the serious photographer, even for one who has been around as long as Mark. People have become more media-savvy, and have lost a little of their innocence as camera subjects. And a publishing industry that used to subsidize her passion for documentary photography is now reluctant to do so.

"I love taking pictures, so in order to continue to be a photographer, you have to adapt to the times and you have to learn how to work with what the system is today," she says. "But I'll never give up doing documentary photography. It's where my heart is." •