Whether it is portraiture or documentary photography, it is clear that Mary Ellen Mark's pictures are not made purely according to terms set by the photographer. It is revealed in the subjects' body language, it shows by their hands, it can be felt through the look in their eyes. These people can't be avoided. They play on your nerves. Sometimes they even observe us.
How do her pictures achieve this ability? It's not only that she has looked people right in the eyes with her cameras where we ourselves would have looked away. It's not only that she becomes involved in areas we would have avoided. It's not just her dogged insistence on technical perfection and it's not just her style of composition, tilting the camera, getting closer and cropping the image that captures us. It is something else, a mystery much more difficult to define.
Behind the actual surface, the factual rendition, there is a secret that we are drawn towards but can't grasp. It is like the difficulty of explaining why a voice can be persuasive, a melody melancholic. It is the feeling that defines that which we call art.
Obviously such a photographer has many imitators, or produces them even. It is not only the pictures that have provided inspiration but she herself who has shared the experience through being a speaker, course leader, fellow-being. At the same time she asks a great deal from the partakers, from colleagues and from us that see her work.