new york times book review
April 30, 2000
Mary Ellen Mark

"Clinton Albright and His Father, Santa Clarita, California, 1992," a photograph from “Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey.”

For more than 30 years, the photographer Mary Ellen Mark has been preoccupied with depicting society's voiceless and disregarded, the tough, unkempt fringes of the culture, the outcasts as well as the unsightly. Mark has photographed runaway street kids in Seattle, prostitutes and pimps in Bombay, inmates of prisons and mental wards -not with the intent of exploiting these images for their shock value, but to reveal the common spark of humanity that links them to us. In MARY ELLEN MARK: American Odyssey (Aperture, $50), the black‑and‑white photographs continue to challenge our preconceptions, though her focus is on our country's eccentric as well as its outcasts. Here are photographs of a baby beauty pageant and senior citizens in dance classes, rodeos in Texas, Coney Island bodybuilders and Christian bikers. Images of celebrities abound as well: an aged Henry Miller with a companion, the blues singer Etta James sporting a flamboyant black feather hat. Some of the most poignant photographs are those of the Damm family, homeless when Mark first shot them living in their car in 1987, and again in 1994, squatting on an abandoned ranch. Also haunting are several updated portraits of a woman called Tiny, first photographed in Seattle as a 12‑year‑old street child, now shown middle‑aged and naked in her bathtub, a single mother of five. Unlike Diane Arbus, to whom she has been unjustly compared, Mark emotionally engages her subjects, and through this bond we, as viewers, are drawn in too.