Career Profile: mary ellen mark
Her penetrating vision reveals much about mankind
August, 2000
Lynne Eodice
Mary Ellen Mark

Tiny in her Halloween costume, Seattle, WA 1983.

Lucky Kargo, pro ballroom dancer, Miami, FL, 1993

Amanda and her cousin Amy, photographed in Valdese, N.C., 1990

Water exercise group in St. Petersburg, Florida, 1986.

Edgar Bergen & his famous sidekick, Charlie McCarthy, Los Angeles, CA, 1978.

Etta James and her dog Strappy, Riverside, CA 1997

Compelling images--such as this one of Mother Teresa at the Home for the Dying in Calcutta, India--have been subjects for many of Mark's books.

This photo of an older couple at a bar, photographed in New York City, 1977, was included in American Odyssey, Mark's most recent compilation of images.

An acclaimed photographer for over three decades, Mary Ellen Mark creates images that explore the oddities and everyday occurrences of today’s world. While most photographers strive for a slick, glamorous look, Mark has always looked beyond this to reveal the true individual and his/her lifestyle on film. Her imagery is stripped bare of pretense and the typical prettified views of life, which she has eschewed to show us something much more provocative. “I really believe in pictures that have content,” Mark emphasizes. “That’s where my heart and soul is.”

Mark describes her work quite simply: “I’m somewhere between a documentary and portrait photographer.” She’s always loved taking pictures of people, and the rapport that she’s created with her subjects is apparent in images of faces that reappear in her work over a period of time.

Her most recent book, American Odyssey—along with a current international traveling exhibition of this work—consists of images photographed throughout America over the past 35 years. However, she’s traveled worldwide to take pictures that reflect a great deal of empathy toward the human condition, and much of this work is the subject of other books and magazine photo essays. For example, her portrayals of Mother Teresa, Indian circuses and brothels in Bombay are the products of many years of work in India.

She’s also photographed many celebrities over the years—ranging from Edgar Bergen to Agnes Martin—yet she downplays this aspect of her work and says she’s never considered herself a celebrity photographer. “The images that people remember are the ones that I’ve just found; ones that I’ve just gone off and taken.”

Indeed, her most notable photos are of subjects that reflect a less glamorous lifestyle, like a young woman named Tiny, looking very somber in a Halloween costume; the Damm family, who once lived in their car and now exist under difficult circumstances; as well as varied characters such as prom-goers, cross-dressers, and Halloween trick-or-treaters.

In Mark’s words, “I’ve always loved photography.” As a child, she owned a Brownie and was “Fascinated with all that photography meant.” She later attended the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she majored in fine art and took a lot of painting and art history classes. She graduated with a scholarship to attend the Annenberg School for Communication (part of the University of Pennsylvania_. “I was very oriented in the arts at that time,” she recalls.

As a photography major at Annenberg, she says, “There was no question in my mind that it was what I wanted to do.” The school generously loaned equipment to its students, and Mark set out photographing people on the street with a borrowed Leica. Her talent and enthusiasm was apparent early on. “I was very passionate about photography and my instructors were very encouraging,” she says.

After graduate, she was the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to take photographs in Turkey. She says, “It was wonderful to go to a place and do nothing but make pictures.” When she returned to live in New York, she went to work doing freelance photography and worked for a magazine called Jubilee.

Around this time, a breakthrough assignment came through: Look magazine’s managing editor, Pat Carbine, sent Mark to photograph noted director Federico Fellini on the set of “Satryicon,” being filmed in Rome. This was followed by a photo essay on drug addicts in London, and much magazine work came her way.

From the late ‘60s into the ‘70s, Mark free-lanced for Look, Life, and other prestigious magazines. She also began several personal projects, some of which have since become subjects for her numerous photo books. She was also called upon to shoot movie stills—“documentary work on many different sets.” the first of these was “Alice’s Restaurant” (1968). Later she worked on “Apocalyspe Now” (1977), and several Milos Forman films, including “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In 1977 Mark returned to the women’s ward at Oregon State Hospital where the film was made. These resulting photos comprised a later book called Ward 81.

In the late ‘70s, Mark began photographing prostitutes in Bombay, India. One of her books, entitled Falkland Road, documented the day-to-day occurrences of brothels in this particular district, “where the least expensive prostitutes were.” For the past 30+ years, her compelling images have been subjects for many books, like Seattle’s runaway children living on the streets, and Mother Teresa’s missions to Calcutta.

She continues to do editorial work for magazines, but feels that photography today is much more commercial than in the past. “I was lucky,” she notes. “Magazines in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were doing a lot more documentary work than they are today. I think it’s sad because we’ve all lost something. There seems to be a turn away from content these days.”

“The commercial magazine work is fine and it fills nicely, but it’s not what really survives,” she says. Mark strives to give a photo something more intimate. “Today it’s all about celebrity and fashion—I’m much more about reality. The content of pictures is what drives me.” This driving force has enable her to go to places that few photographers have dared to explore.

In addition to Life and Look, her powerful images have been the subject of photo essays and portraits for New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Vogue, US, and London Sunday Times Magazine. She also has shot ad campaigns for Coach bags, British Levis, Goldman Sachs, Hasselblad, Heineken, Keds, Mass Mutual, and Patek Philippe.

Understandably, her talents have been honored on many occasions. She’s received the Infinity Award by the International Center of Photography, the Ema and Victor Hasselblad Foundation Grant, the Walter Annenberg Grant for the America Odyssey book and exhibition, the Matrix Award for an outstanding woman in the field of film and photography, and two John F. Kennedy awards, among others. She has also received honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from the University of Arts and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

Mark uses a wide variety of equipment to achieve her unique imagery, ranging from 35 mm to large-format 4x5. For her 35mm work, she sometimes uses Leica M6 TTL, a rangefinder camera, and the Canon EOS-IN with 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm lenses (“the Canon autofocusing system is fantastic”). On occasion, she uses the Hasselblad X-Pan, (with its new 30mm lens). She also works in medium format, and uses Hasselblad cameras (usually with a 60mm lens), and the Mamiya 7 (with 65mm, 50mm, and 43mm lenses). When working with 4x5 equipment, her choice is Linhof, with 120- or 135mm lenses. “Each system does something different,” Mark points out. “I like to switch around.”

She prefers black-and-white film, “for the immediacy and abstraction of it.” And although Mark is best known for her black-and-white work, she occasionally uses color. When she shoots on film sets, she always works with Kodak Tri-X (a 400 speed film she rates at 200). “It’s a great film,” she says. “I have full confidence in it.” She uses Fuji HPH and Kodak PNC films when working in color, and Broncolor and Norman lighting equipment.

Looking back, what are her favorite images? She says she can’t narrow them down to just a few personal favorites, but mentions some of her Indian circus images, like “Contortionist with Sweety, the puppy” (the Raj Kamal Circus, India, 1989), which appeared on the cover of Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years, or the work she’s done with the Damm family.

She also expresses gratitude for the opportunity to illustrate her vision through some supportive editors in the past, such as two from Life magazine, Peter Howe and John Lowengard. “Through their support I had the opportunity to photograph some truly fascinating subjects.” She emphasizes this point in advising new photographers who want to enter the editorial arena: “It really helps if an editor believes in your work. It’s very important.”

Today, Mark is still shooting portraits for publications such as Rolling Stone, US Weekly, The New Yorker, and Harper’s Bazaar. She travels extensively on assignment and, of course, for her personal projects. She also teaches at the Maine Photographic workshop, as well as conducting workshops in Oaxaca (“I love Mexico”). Through August 6, “Mary Ellen Mark:  Photographs,” is on display at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. This exhibit focuses on imagery from her latest book, American Odyssey.

The vast collection of Mark’s work throughout the years can also be seen on her Website: One thing’s for sure: no matter how you feel after viewing the world through the lens of Mary Ellen Mark, you won’t come away unaffected by the experience.