Mary Ellen Mark tempers the hard edges of her photography with a heartfelt humanism
April 1989
By: Chris Buck

Mary Ellen Mark by Chris Buck

Do documentary photographers exploit their most poignant subjects, people on the very fringes of life, for their own dramatic purposes?

This is the question that has dogged Mary Ellen Mark over the course of a 22‑year career that has seen her stark, haunting work spot-lit in Life, Time, Paris‑Match, Stern and The National Geographic among others.

The question of exploitation makes Mark defensive. "Why does a celebrity deserve to be recognized and made known more than someone struggling on the edges of our society? Why should they just be ignored?" She insists it never occurs to her outcast‑subjects (prostitutes in Bombay, runaways in Seattle, Indian street performers, English junkies, blind Soviets) that the photographer might be taking advantage of them. "They're maybe just surprised at first that you're interested in their lives at all."


The photographer (top); and her subjects in America and China: nothing romantic.
Mark has made hers by endowing her subjects with the human qualities they are denied by the lensman in search of The Big Statement. Instead, she zooms in on specifics. Avoiding stereotypes and anonymous interchangeable roles, she has always recognized and cele­brated the individual without losing the seriousness of the often stark social sit­uation her characters find themselves in. One could almost say she finds the romantic in the truly hopeless. "I don't like overly romantic images," Mark herself declares. "There's nothing romantic about illness or poverty. They're horrible. But I don't want you to look at people who are poor or ill and say, "God, that's disgusting” either. I care about the people I photograph. There is a middle ground that can be reached."