PHILADELPHIA‑For more than 30 years, Mary Ellen Mark has been photographing communities on the fringes of society. More often than not, the subjects of her documentary projects have been the disenfranchised. She has photographed women in a mental hospital in Oregon, runaway teens in Seattle and a homeless family in Los Angeles, to name a few of her best‑known projects. Through August 6, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will include some of these and other images in an exhibition titled Mary Ellen Mark: Photographs:' a show that comes on the heals of the publication of Mark's book American Odyssey, published by Aperture last October. Both the book and exhibition are the first to gather her American work exclusively.
As someone with a passion for social documentary work, Mark (born in 1940) came to the magazine business during the 1960s and 1970s, when magazines like LIFE, Look and Esquire were more inclined to assign such work. Although social documentary assignments have all but evaporated from the publishing landscape, Mark has been able to remain committed to her genre by taking on other commercial assignments, such as Hollywood portraits, to fund her personal projects.
The exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art will include 140 samplings of both kinds of work, it's not a comprehensive show. Her body of work in America is enormous‑we've chosen the images [that] best demonstrate Mary Ellen's commitment to her subjects," says Melissa Harris, who is senior editor at Aperture and served as guest curator of the exhibition along with Michael Hoffman, Aperture's executive director and former adviser to the Museum's Stieglitz Center. In this show, it's a commitment that has yielded some intimate documents, in part because Mark has visited many of the subjects she has photographed several times over the years. We see Tiny, who Mark first photographed as a runaway teenager in 1993, now a struggling mother of four at age 30. We also revisit the Damm family, who Mark photographed when they were living in their car in 1987 and again in 1994 when, sadly, their circumstance had not greatly improved. Her aim here is very clear: to depict the survival of the human spirit, intact over the years, despite dispiriting circumstances.
The show will travel to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, in Indiana, at the end of August, and will open at NYC's ICP in March of 2001. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th St. For more info, call (215) 763‑8100 or see <www.philamuseum.org>.