Legendary American photographer Mary Ellen Mark dies at 75

27 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark, known for ‘Streetwise’ series, dies.

The award-winning photographer, whose career mixing documentary and portraiture spanned 40 years, passed away Monday in New York City, Philly.com reports. NEW YORK – Documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark, called “a snake charmer of the soul” for her gift of capturing searing images of human vulnerability, has died at age 75. Mark had a knack for capturing the essence of people — from circus performers and celebrities, to teenagers and families living on the edges of society.

Her most recent photography book, Prom, captured that delightfully awkward rite of passage for teenagers in nearly 300 portraits taken across the country. Over the decades, “what resulted was, in fact, a lamentation: one of the most delicately shaded studies of vulnerability ever set on film,” wrote the late Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes. Mark began her career with magazines like Look and Life, taking a classic documentary approach to often difficult material and usually working in black and white.

A collection of Mark photographs in a book titled “Streetwise” documents the life of Tiny Blackwell, a Seattle prostitute and drug addict Mark met in the 1980s when Tiny was 13. A new book on Blackwell photographed over decades is yet to be published, titled “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited.” The photographer chose Seattle “because it is known as ‘America’s most livable city,“’ she wrote in the preface to her book on the subject. “By choosing America’s ideal city we were making the point: ‘If street kids exist in a city like Seattle then they can be found everywhere in America, and we are therefore facing a major social problem of runaways in this country.“’ Mark’s work appeared in prominent publications including Life, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. At the same time she continued her documentary work, photographing high school proms, autistic children and families in homeless shelters. “She was a great storyteller,” said Melissa Harris, the editor in chief of the Aperture Foundation, who edited several of Ms. Mark’s books. “She got to know the subjects she photographed very well, and she was able to convey who they were and how they lived, as well as a sense of their interior lives. She traveled often to India, where she spent months earning the trust of the prostitutes of Mumbai. “Every day I had to brace myself for the street as if I were about to jump into freezing water,” she told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 1991. “I started out by just walking the street.

She studied at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in painting and art history in 1962 and a master’s degree in photojournalism in 1964. She was particularly interested in the work of documentarians like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Dorothea Lange. “I remember the first time I went out on the street to shoot pictures,” she told the magazine Communication Arts in 1997. “I was in downtown Philadelphia and I just took a walk and started making contact with people and photographing them, and I thought: ‘I love this. Mark traveled to Turkey on a Fulbright scholarship, an experience that provided some of the subject matter for her first book, “Passport,” published in 1974.

After she moved to New York in the late 1960s, Look magazine assigned her to photograph Federico Fellini on the set of “Satyricon” in Rome, and also heroin addicts at a London clinic. The rapport she developed with the inmates translated into strikingly de-dramatized representations of humans in extreme circumstances, in contrast to the freakish portraits made by Diane Arbus. Her interest in social outcasts remained a constant throughout her career, reflected in the book “Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay” (1981), unusual for being in color. While on assignment for Life in 1983, she began photographing homeless teenagers in Seattle, a ragtag collection of small-time drug dealers, prostitutes and panhandlers who populate the pages of “Streetwise,” published in 1988.

With her husband, the filmmaker Martin Bell, who survives her, she turned her encounters into a film, which was nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary in 1984. She published the first of her 18 books in 1974 and financed her photojournalism projects by taking still photographs on the sets of movies, including “Apocalypse Now” and “The Missouri Breaks.” Later, as magazines began to publish fewer photographs, she took assignments for advertising and celebrity portraits.

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