Remembering Mary Ellen Mark, 1940–2015

Mary Ellen Mark’s life and work remembered by Melissa Harris and those who worked closely with her.

(To view the slideshow of images, click on the images or the arrows below.)

“I was thinking about how fleeting and how precious life is and the choices that you make in life, the luck of being born in the right bed, to parents who support and help you, and who love you. That doesn’t always happen—and then, what happens when that doesn’t happen?” —Mary Ellen Mark, from the afterword to Tiny: Streetwise Revisited

It was early this past winter, and Mary Ellen and I were discussing the afterword she would write—based on interviews I was doing with her—for her forthcoming book, Tiny: Streetwise Revisited. How she would encapsulate her thirty-plus years photographing Tiny, whom she had first met and photographed when Tiny was thirteen, and living with a group of homeless teens on Pike Street, in Seattle? Mary Ellen was sick, but refused to be a slave to her illness. Willfully, determinedly, and at times ironically, she confronted it, without compromise—and with the strong, candid, loving, and intelligent support of her husband and partner, the filmmaker Martin Bell.

Our meetings were squeezed in between the Oaxaca workshops she taught, photographing in Seattle for the final chapter of Tiny: Streetwise Revisited while Martin filmed, teaching in California, accepting awards, and working on another book with my Aperture colleague Denise Wolff.

“There was a time when the sight of Mary Ellen Mark’s number on my phone could raise my blood pressure,” says Wolff. “Whether it was a photographer she wanted me to meet or the time she called to say she wanted good-looking caterers at her fundraising cocktail event—who wouldn’t?!—or something more important, she was relentless when she wanted something.”

Wolff had always heard that Mary Ellen was a wonderful teacher and when Aperture created The Photography Workshop Series, she knew that she wanted to publish a book of her teaching. Mark said yes, but insisted that Wolff travel to her ten-day workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico, to work on the book and meet her students. Aperture’s director, Chris Boot, asked Wolff to persuade Mark that she could gather enough material here in New York or that we could hire an editor we all knew from Mexico to go instead. “Of course, that didn’t work,” says Wolff. “She wanted to do the book, and I had to come to Oaxaca. That was that. Even after I bought the flight, I don’t think she believed I was really coming until I arrived. She had her driver, Tomas, waiting to pick me up at the airport. He had been driving for her in Oaxaca as long as she had been teaching the workshop [over fifteen years]. I told him the story of how I came to be there. He laughed knowingly, ‘Mary Ellen is an easy person to say yes to.’”

Mary Ellen didn’t so much teach her students, as push them—to go further from wherever they were at that moment. “Just try to be a better photographer; that is enough,” she would say. She was highly intuitive with her students, with everyone, notes Wolff. She understood immediately who they were and could spot their strengths and also what was holding them back. “Don’t try to illustrate what happens; interpret it,” she would say. She was a tough editor; an “almost” picture was always a miss.

Wolff had worked with her before on her book of film stills (Seen Behind the Scene) but had never had the opportunity to see this side of her—the way she looked for the best in her students and how she championed them. And, how funny she was. At the workshop, a long-time student, Laurie Rae Baxter, was describing a man in the street who tried to spit on her when she was photographing. Mary Ellen asked, “Did you get his picture?!” Laurie laughed, no. “Coward,” Mary Ellen joked, “I would have taken his picture.”

Knowing that Mary Ellen was in poor health, for all of us the Workshop book as well as Tiny: Streetwise Revisited took on a different meaning and urgency. For the Workshop book, she pored over the text—“I don’t want to talk about creativity here, I want to talk about connection”—cutting to the heart of the matter. For both books, she didn’t put things off. Says Wolff: “We worked when she was tired, when she was busy, when she was not well, when she shouldn’t have been working. She saw the book through, adding new people to thank, to the day it went on press. I know she would be happier knowing that others will be reading her words and looking at this book, especially her students, than she would be in seeing it herself.” Both books were finalized first and signed off on by Mary Ellen a few weeks before she died. Sadly, she did not get to see them printed and bound.

Mary Ellen Mark’s first book with Aperture, and our first project together, was the facsimile reprinting of Streetwise in 1992. In 1997, her work in India was critical to Aperture’s book and exhibition in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence. This was soon followed, in 1999, by the retrospective of her work photographed in the United States, American Odyssey—also a traveling exhibition that began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and went to the International Center of Photography in New York, among other venues. Laser-focused, she was an excellent, sometimes unyielding, collaborator—impassioned, opinionated, open-minded at times, and single-minded at others. I also regularly featured Mary Ellen’s work in Aperture magazine when I was its Editor-in-Chief.

Mary Ellen was a force of nature, and her relationships reflected that intensity and engagement as well as an unwavering generosity. I always thought she’d be one of the people I’d want in my lifeboat. At her and Martin’s studio, she was supported by two remarkable individuals who define grace under pressure—Meredith Lue, Library Manager, and Julia Bezgin, Studio Manager, whose dog, Cooper, accompanies her to the studio every day, which delighted Mary Ellen. The studio always seemed a flurry of activity, with Martin in the back space, working on his films: most recently, Tiny, which is to come out with Mary Ellen’s book in the fall.

If you were a young photographer in whose work Mary Ellen found something of merit—you could be certain she would call everybody she knew who might be able to help you. I say this having been on the receiving end of these “you must see” calls for twenty years. And, even if I had wanted to, it was impossible to say no to Mary Ellen. If you didn’t like the work that was one thing—you were just wrong—but not to look: that was not tolerated. She had a wonderful eye and was an extraordinary teacher.

Letizia Battaglia, whose work demanding justice in mafia-plagued Sicily moved and impressed Mary Ellen, remembers: “I have deeply loved Mary Ellen Mark since about 1975. And then her photos of the psychiatric hospital [Ward 81, 1979] and all the others were a model for me, an example of elegant and sincere reportage. . . . I respect her work, but also the delicacy of her way of living. I remember that in Arles, perhaps the first year there was an Arles [photo festival]; she was a teacher there. I didn’t have the money to pay for the workshop and, keeping it a secret from the organizers, she brought me into her group.”

If you were Tiny and her ten children, it meant receiving Christmas gifts for the kids, for thirty years. And, after Aperture’s Executive Director and Publisher, Michael Hoffman, unexpectedly died in 2001, Mary Ellen, with Lynne Honickman, put together a stunning collection of photographs in his honor, which was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

One could not have a more vital, more sensitive friend. And her fierce loyalty and generosity extended as well to animals—she loved elephants, pigs, chimps, goats, donkeys . . . and especially dogs.

If you were a stray dog, wandering around Oaxaca, at risk of going to the pound, Mary Ellen was mission-driven. Her first rescue was Gringo—much beloved, and still living with her close friend, Diana Haas, who met the puppy while taking one of Mary Ellen’s workshops. When I interviewed her for her book Man and Beast, Mary Ellen told me: “Since the success with Gringo, I’ve taken it upon myself to find dogs for my Oaxaca workshop students, to convince my students to adopt dogs. And several of them do, and they have happy lives. I follow up. There are a lot of stray dogs in Oaxaca, and the dogcatchers go after them. After I had a couple of fistfights with dogcatchers in the Zócalo, they now let me take them.”

Mary Ellen also loved Cholo, the Mexican hairless dog of her dear friends in Oaxaca, the painter, Francisco Toledo, and his wife, the Danish weaver, Trine Ellitsgaard. Trine wrote me the other day: “I am so very sad, she was my most special friend ever, and a kind of lifesaver for me and my children, always. We are doing a show of forty prints beginning Saturday in Centro Fotográfico here in Oaxaca, in memory of all that she has done for Oaxaca. I will tell you something strange that for me and Francisco has been so connected to Mary Ellen: We had two dogs who Mary Ellen loved very much; she always brought them presents and dog sweets from New York every time she came, and always asked about their being. They both passed away a few days before Mary Ellen. Francisco and I like to believe that they left to be there, on the other side, to receive her . . . It is overwhelming to lose my three loved ones together, but I can excuse my dogs if their plan was to be with Mary Ellen.”

Mary Ellen also found a home for a neglected dog belonging to the Damm family, who she photographed, as with Tiny’s, repeatedly—the first time when they were living in their car in the late 1980s. With this shattering revelation, she created one of the many iconic images of her life, and in the life of the medium itself.

And then there was the annual, much anticipated, “Doggy Christmas.” Dozens of often dubious dogs, chaperoned by excited friends and colleagues, poured into the SoHo studio, both to party and to have their portraits taken. Sometimes the dogs were costumed by theme, or there were props or backdrops or characters, but inevitably, the dog would sit on the platform—the studio set up as it might be if Mary Ellen were photographing any politician or actor—while assistants scurried about. If Mary Ellen was not satisfied by the composition, she’d instruct the unsuspecting beagle or Lhasa apso or greyhound to move “stage right” and “upstage,” along with other, non-doggy directions.

Mary Ellen loved India and Mexico, and more recently, Iceland, as does Martin, and created signature stories in all places—including her 1981 color work on the prostitutes of Falkland Road in Bombay, where she embedded for six weeks and with a saturated, striking palette conveyed a ravaged and sensual world, without sentimentality. About her work on the Indian circus, John Irving, who spent some time with Mary Ellen when she was photographing there, wrote in his foreword to that book, “The Indian circuses reflect an atavistic and compassionate life, which Mary Ellen has depicted with disturbing honesty and compelling affection.”

With the circus projects, in India and later in Mexico, she told me that she was “looking for the anthropomorphic things in animals.” When photographing children, on the other hand, she was looking for the “beast.” “There’s an innocence sometimes in children, which is similar in animals. But I rarely look for the innocence. Children are ‘Man.’ They can be very cruel. They’re tiny humans. That’s what I try to look for in children. I’m looking for the things they do that reveal their true nature.”

She also did quite a lot of work on Mother Teresa. Although slightly more sympathetic, I believe she ultimately concurred, more or less, with Christopher Hitchens’s take on Mother Teresa as expressed in his book, The Missionary Position. At the time, Mary Ellen could not reconcile the vast amounts of money Mother Teresa was able to raise, with the shabby and ridiculously low-tech condition of her hospitals: she seemingly could have afforded to build the most modern, high level medical facility for the suffering people she was so committed to helping. Still, Mary Ellen’s work on Mother Teresa tenderly and respectfully declares her as a force to be reckoned with. On the willfulness front, they were certainly well matched.

In 2002, when the beatification of Mother Teresa occurred, Mary Ellen and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to tie the pub date of a potential book to her potential sainthood? So, I called art director Yolanda Cuomo, who I knew had friends in high places. Yo called up her pal, Monsignor Michele Prattichizzo, who works at the Vatican in what we referred to as the Department of Saints. At the time, Mother Teresa had realized most of the requirements, but there were still some miracles pending. We decided to wait for the miracles.

Mary Ellen’s portraiture went through a transition when she started to use the Polaroid 20 x 24 camera. Entirely set up, although there was no longer the spontaneity of context, movement, or angle, she achieved a different kind of directness by virtue of being literally so close, and needing to direct her subjects more than she had chosen to do previously. Martin made films for both the Twins project (the book was published by Aperture in 2003) and Prom, first published in Aperture magazine, and then as a book in 2012 by J. Paul Getty Museum. Prom was also exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as, in part, at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia including, to the public’s excitement, the Charlottesville prom. There is a poignancy and frankness to both projects, and humor that comes across especially in the films.

Mary Ellen asked me to go on two shoots for Prom to help Martin with the interviewing process for his film. The first was a Staten Island high school prom held at Chelsea Piers in New York. Mary Ellen was gleeful that the previous year, the graduating students must have behaved so badly that the Pierre Hotel would not allow this year’s class back at any price. The second was a high school prom in Ithaca, New York, that she somehow convinced me entailed just a two-hour drive. Six hours later, interviewing these students on the cusp of life part two, and watching Mary Ellen, witty and kind, unintimidating but gently bossy, give them the first degree as she positioned them—“So, are you two having sex? Do your parents know?” Or, “Are you in love?”—this behind-the-scenes experience afforded me exceptional insight.

Michael “Nick” Nichols, who “amazed” Mary Ellen because of how he conveyed “the intimate side of the lives of animals,” wrote: “I’m sixty-two and have been around a while. Mary Ellen was one of the first photographers whose work I admired, and who had an influence on me and so many others. She never stopped working. When I was able to see her actually working on Prom in Charlottesville, it all became clear. The camera was not there, it was MEM looking a stranger in the eye, and getting exactly what she wanted to come through. Finally she was so tough on herself, and the whole system, and she was never satisfied with her place in the publishing and art world. But as a giver and teacher outside that world, she was endlessly generous. I will miss her. In no way was I ready for her to leave. She slipped away.”

Watching her relate to her subjects, so visually goal-oriented, but with such honesty, and an almost feral alertness—spotting when she had triggered something, and then going there graciously, sympathetically, sometimes aggressively, I understood how her work may suggest something about her subjects’ interior lives which even they have yet to understand.

Donna Ferrato, whose reportage and advocacy on behalf of battered women Mary Ellen believed in, and found so powerful, states: “What made Mary Ellen Mark a strong photographer was her vulnerability. She allowed herself to feel things and to express them, and she genuinely loved and cared about the people she was photographing. She had the gift of a truly great photographer: the gift of being able to sense and to put into a photograph not only what she felt, but what the people on the other side of the camera felt, as well. Mary Ellen hated the term ‘woman photographer,’ and always said she was ‘a photographer first.’ But to me, it was her strength as a woman, her willingness to be vulnerable, her fighting spirit, that made her exceptional; she was a warrior, a lioness, and I always trusted her.”

Mary Ellen never exploited a situation, never exploited someone else’s pain or difficult conditions. Her work was simultaneously uninflected and deeply inflected. That is, she got you to feel, without telling you what or how to feel. She was passionate and compassionate. Life mattered. Animals mattered. People mattered.

Eugene Richards, the photographer with whom Mary Ellen felt perhaps the closest kinship, and whose often wrenching work got under her skin and moved her enormously, wrote me of Mary Ellen’s death, and the recent loss of another dear, extraordinarily present, brilliant friend of his and mine: “I don’t know if it’s appropriate to be relating the recent loss of one deeply creative friend with the loss of another deeply creative friend. But I can’t help it. To my mind, you see, Mary Ellen and the great writer Chuck Bowden, who died last August, were not in fundamental ways dissimilar. Both were relentless workers, both provocative presences, meaning that when they entered a room, they by force of personality dominated the room. Both loved and hated the magazine world that they toiled in; both chose their own artistic paths, had distinctive voices, and only seldom wavered from them. Both were, at times, scarily intense and self-occupied, while capable of deeply heartfelt personal revelations and emotion. And, not to belabor the comparison, both of them lived their lives out in big ways, while giving a lot back.”

There was rarely, if ever, ambiguity with Mary Ellen. There was minimal gray area. She was empathetic, kooky sometimes, tempestuous at other times, always attentive, always intense, and you always knew how she felt, where she stood, where you stood, and why. And as photography editor Laurie Kratochvil wrote to me, “Mary Ellen did not suffer fools gladly…” In her darker moments, Mary Ellen could have a piercing disdain for the art/photography world, and for the decline of the editorial possibilities for documentary photographers in magazines, and at times—very unfortunately—felt slighted by them, no matter how hard one tried to dissuade her. And yet, this would pass, and then recur like a turbulent thunderstorm.

One afternoon this past winter when I was at the studio working with Mary Ellen and Martin on the Tiny: Streetwise Revisited texts, she drifted away from the work at hand to tell me about a poem by Robert Frost, “Birches,” that Martin had read to her that morning. She especially loved the final passages:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches. / And so I dream of going back to be. / It’s when I’m weary of considerations, / And life is too much like a pathless wood / Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs/ Broken across it, and one eye is weeping / From a twig’s having lashed across it open. / I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over. / May no fate willfully misunderstand me / And half grant what I wish and snatch me away / Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better. / I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree, / And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk / Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again. / That would be good both going and coming back. / One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Then, Mary Ellen added: “I remember when I must have been around four years old, I had been very ill, deathly ill. And then I woke up one morning and I was feeling better. It was spring. I looked out a window in my grandfather’s house. It was on the second or third floor. And this tree, with these beautiful flowers—apples maybe, or magnolias—they were flowers that smelled so sweetly on the breeze: warm wind, and the flowers moving. I remember being so happy and grateful for life.”

Mary Ellen Mark died on Monday, May 25, from pneumonia, a result of lowered immunity from myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease affecting bone marrow and blood. She was seventy-five.

I keep thinking of Mary Ellen’s long, signature braids, flowing clothes with sweeping scarves, uniquely intricate silver jewelry—often made by friends. I remember Tiny calling her “exotic” when we spoke some years ago. Mary Ellen had such presence. She and her images influenced and are loved, respected, and admired by so many. The world feels lesser without her.

—Melissa Harris, May 31, 2015