RIP: Philadelphia Native Mary Ellen Mark, Unflinching-Eyed Photojournalist, Dead At 75

Gypsy Camp Mary Mark Ellen


NEW YORK TIMES: She brings to all her photographs an unflinching yet compassionate eye. In the midst of exotica or on the fringes of society, where she often chooses to be, she does not exaggerate the unavoidably alien, freakish qualities a less complex photographer would emphasize, but tries to find clues to what is familiar and human. Thus a picture of three Indian prostitutes solemnly, uncomfortably awaiting a man’s decision becomes a poignant, harsher version of young girls at a dance. Mark says that ”Falkland Road,” her 1981 book on the Bombay brothels ”was meant almost as a metaphor for entrapment, for how difficult it is to be a woman.”

Her subject matter raises an old question about photojournalism: Do photographers exploit those less fortunate than themselves for the sake of their art? Mark herself simply asks whether the poor should be ignored; many have eagerly posed for her, she says, precisely because they wished to be noticed at last. And as Richard B. Stolley, who as managing editor of Life magazine assigned to Mark many of her most important stories, puts it, ”If she weren’t such a good photographer, the charge would never arise.” […]Mary Mark Ellen

Yet at a time when magazines are cutting back on photo essays in favor of twinkling pictures of media stars and token illustrations in text pieces, outlets for photojournalism are steadily diminishing. Mary Ellen Mark is one of the few photographers today whose stories have regularly appeared in such publications as Life, The Sunday Times of London, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Paris-Match, Stern and Time. And in a magazine forum that sometimes seems to be split between hardship and glitz, she has an offbeat and distinctive vision of both. She does essays on Ethiopian refugees or the elderly in Miami; then, to earn a living, she takes advertising and publicity stills for films and countless celebrity portraits.

Among photographers she admires, Mark mentions Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helmut Newton, the fashion photographer who helped raise decadence to couturier status. But she mentions Diane Arbus most often. ”No matter who Arbus photographed,” Mark says, ”she could somehow make them look a bit odd, which is nice. I like that,” To call Arbus’s images ”a bit odd” is rather like calling Dali’s a trifle neurotic; she does add that she’s fascinated by Arbus’s ”freaks, misfits, monsters.” Mark is no slouch at discerning oddity in her own work, but her photographs have never been infected by Arbus’s profound and contagious malice. MORE