WHEN THE READERS of the American magazine American Photo voted Mary Ellen Mark as the
most influential female photographer of all time, it did not come as a surprise. Her stance on
people living on the edge of society - The Unfamous - has for decades aroused interest and
respect. During the 1990s it was particularly apparent when commercial interests almost
ousted socially committed documentation in favour of celebrity photography in the USA.
Compassion, intelligence and a strong will are some of the characteristics that of course come to
mind regarding Mary Ellen Mark. Together with legendary photographers such as Margaret
Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus she forms a quartet that could be described as
history's foremost female documentary photographers.
Mary Ellen Mark is currently in the limelight with the publication of her new book American
Odyssey (Aperture 1999). Critically and with a clear vision she observes the USA through old
and new pictures spanning the years 1963-1999.
"Looking back, my work in America strikes me now as being a long and blessed journey - a
journey that has taken me from one end of this country to the other many times and allowed me
to enter into the lives of countless people", writes the photographer herself in the epilogue to
her book. "From the extremely poor to the very rich I have been a witness to some of the things
that makes this country so extraordinary. I have photographed people at baby beauty pageants
and in singles' bars, at twins' conventions and Ku Klux Klan gatherings. I have crossed paths
with some wonderful people and some terrible ones."
Mary Ellen Mark's career is in many ways a good example of how to create a succesful
photographic platform. She was born in Philadelphia in 1940 and grew up in a normal, middle-class
American environment. She studied art history and in 1962, while attending the
Annenberg School of Communication, made an impulsive decision to become a photographer after
trying out a Leica.
"Immediately when I held the camera I knew I wanted to be a photographer. And I had this feeling
that I could be a good one!"
Soon enough the young photography student had the chance to show her portfolio to Edward
Steichen, the doyen of American photography. He pointed out the same thing that Mary Ellen Mark herself
preaches to young photography students: "Every serious working photographer has to have their own
explicit way of expressing themselves".
Steichen's advice was as good as it comes, but when young it is difficult not to be influenced by
other photographers. In Mary Ellen Mark's case it was pictures by Bruce Davidson, Robert
Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson that inspired her. She was also fascinated by Diane Arbus's
world of misfits and other 'monsters'. But no one made a greater impact than Eugene Smith,
whose classic photo-essays became the goal for the young Mary Ellen's own photographic
Mary Ellen Mark started photographing in earnest in 1962 and opened her own studio in New
York some years later. The real breakthrough came in 1969, when the picture magazine Look
sent her to Rome to follow Federico Fellini and the filming of Sazyricon.
Her introduction to the film world gave her the idea to continue on to Hollywood to try her luck
as a still photographer for the film industry. She immediately landed a job as photographer on
Alice's Restaurant and became a still photographer for a dozen or more films including Carnal
Knowledge, Catch 22, Apocalypse Now and Ragtime.
But it was during the filming of Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at a mental hospital
in Oregon in 1971 that Mary Ellen Mark's career took on a deeper significance. She saw how mental-health care
worked in reality - or rather did not work - in the USA. Her visit to the Oregon State Hospital's Ward 81, a ward for seriously
mentally disturbed women, made such a deep impression that she decided to produce a book on
the taboo subject. But it was going to take five years of persistent convincing before the
hospital's management opened the doors. When finally there, she locked herself in for 35 days at
a stretch! It was important to her to live under the same conditions as the patients. Mary Ellen
Mark soon discovered that the line between being 'normal' and incarcerated in a mental
institution was both thin and fragile.
Ward 81(1979) became Mary Ellen Mark's first really meaningful book. It contained many
themes that were to recur during her career. One is her concern for the forgotten people; another is that from her own
perspective she searches out universal truths.
In total, Mary Ellen Mark has published eleven books to date. Falkland Road (1981),
Mary Ellen Mark: Twenty-five Years (1991), Streetwise:
Prostitutes of Bombay (1988) and Indian Circus (1993) have met with the greatest attention.
Mary Ellen Mark's easily recognizable, black and white reportage has regularly been published
in magazines such as Harpers Bazaar, Life, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Rolling
Stone, The Sunday Times Magazine and Vogue. Her talent has throughout the years been richly
rewarded. Mary Ellen Mark is one of her generation's most awarded photographers. She has
received the Robert Kennedy Award (twice), Leica Medal of Excellence, Canon Photo Essayist
Award, World Press Photo Award, ICP:s first prize and a grant in 1997 from the Hasselblad
"Many of the more recent pictures in the book were taken thanks to funds from the Hasselblad
Grant", she explains.
Furthermore, Mary Ellen Mark readily uses a Hasselblad camera and preferably hand-held.
"I normally work with 50, 60 and 80 mm lenses. If the exposure time is longer than 1/30
second then I'll use a tripod. Sharpness is very important to me."
As a documentary photographer, Mary Ellen Mark has learnt to use the square format to
perfection, often by exploiting important image elements at the edges of the picture. It is a
method that increases the sense of spontaneity without any loss of technical perfection.
American Odyssey is Mary Ellen Mark's own journey - her odyssey - throughout the last 35
years as a photographer. Her vision of America is hardly the one portrayed by Hollywood's
dream factories. We renew our acquaintance with the Damm family that first came to our
attention in an article for Life in 1987. The family - four people - at that time lived in an old
car underneath a viaduct in Los Angeles. They do not live in the car anymore, but the now
expanding family's living conditions have hardly improved during Mary Ellen Mark's later
photographic contact with the family. Nor has Tiny from the Oscar nominated project Streetwise
succeeded in sorting out her life. She is now the mother of five children with just as many fathers.
In American Odyssey we meet many of Mary Ellen Mark's recurring subjects
such as KKK meetings, rodeos, disturbed children and American poverty as it is in Appalachia,
New York and Texas. But not everything is hopeless in Mary Ellen Mark's odyssey across the
America of today Miami's dancing gigolos, students in Daytona having a spring holiday and
Halloween-celebrating children in New York are captured with humour and sensitivity.
American Odyssey is in truth a moving depiction of the last quarter of the 1900s. Mary Ellen
Mark has succeeded in combining Margaret Bourke White's feeling for form with Dorothea
Lange's lifelong humanitarian outlook on photography. Furthermore, she has Diane Arbus's
ability to say 'everything' in just one picture. For me, Mary Ellen Mark stands out as the
foremost female documentary photographer of our time.
Photo of Mary Ellen Mark by Albert Watson