American Anthem
Mary Ellen Mark in Retrospect
May 2000
Photography Director: Susan White

Making her mark: Mary Ellen in a 1997 self-portrait taken at the Benneweis Circus in Mexico City.

Hurstie Laxton, St. Louis, Missouri, 1993.

A water exercise group, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1986.

Hers is the photography of total immersion; whether she's traveling with a circus in India, camping out in an Oregon mental hospital for almost two months, tracking teenage runaways in Seattle, or visiting the Damm family living in their car in Los Angeles, Mary Ellen Mark's photographs are at once epic and fiercely intimate. Like urgent X‑rays, her black‑and‑white frames expose the social, the psychological, the highly personal. In an era focused on images of celebrity, Mark prefers photographing the unknown‑people on the fringe, unseen, unnoticed. "It's amazing how intimate you can get even when you go into someone's life only for a few days," Mark says. Echoing the work of earlier documentarians such as Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, and Walker Evans, Mark pushes the old‑fashioned photo‑essay forward with an infusion from the more stylized conceptual world of contemporary photojournalism. The resulting pictures are charged with a strangely magical, surrealistic edge, the sensation of history and experience compressed. "I want to make photographs that last," Mark says. With some of her subjects, such as the Damm family and Tiny, a young runaway prostitute she met in Seattle in 1983, Mark has forged ongoing relationships. She has remained in contact, photographing Tiny, now a single mother with six children, most recently in 1999. This May, the Philadelphia Museum of Art puts on "Mary Ellen Mark: Photographs," an exhibition of more than 140 images from Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey, which Aperture published last fall. Our most passionate, compassionate realist, Mary Ellen Mark reminds us of the extraordinary within the ordinary. ‑A. M. HOMES