Mary Ellen Mark, champion of ‘people on the edges’, dies

Mary Ellen Mark died on Monday at a New York hospital from myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease affecting bone marrow and blood, said her studio manager Julia Bezgin.

The award-winning photographer’s work ranged from celebrities to politicians, but it was her insightful yet compassionate depictions of those on the fringes of society that won her most plaudits.

Mark’s work spanned four decades, starting in the 1960s with magazines such as Life, where she gained a reputation for her black-and-white street photography.

She was known for winning the confidence of her vulnerable subjects, including drug addicts, prostitutes and autistic children, many of whom she maintained contact with throughout her career.

Her latest book, Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, which will be published later this year, returns to the story of 14-year-old prostitute and heroin addict Tiny Blackwell whom she originally photographed in the 1980s.

With her husband, the filmmaker Martin Bell, who survives her, she turned her encounter with the Seattle teenager into a film, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984. The film depicts Blackwell’s life as the daughter of an alcoholic mother who is seemingly unphased by her sex work, calling it a “phase”.

Her latest book returns to Blackwell 30 years later.

‘Snake charmer of the soul’
“She was a snake charmer of the soul,” said author and publicist Cutrone. ”She had the ability and intuition to see inside people, to evoke their soul.”

“I’m just interested in people on the edges,” she told the New York Times in a 1987 interview. “I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. I’m always on their side. I find them more human, maybe. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1940, Mark 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. 

Her work includes pictures of heroin addicts at a London clinic and, in 1979, Ward 81, a book of photographs from the maximum-security women’s ward of a state mental hospital in Oregon, where she lived for two months.

Robert Hughes, in Time, called Ward 81 “one of the most delicately shaded studies of vulnerability ever set on film”.

In response to news of her death, filmmaker Tim Burton told CNN: “I’m saddened by the news of Mary Ellen’s passing. She had a beautiful and creative spirit that shone through into her photography. We collaborated on seven films and while I was deeply inspired by her unique artistry, I came to appreciate her even more as a person. She will be missed.”

Mark utilised a wide range of film cameras in various formats from 35 mm, 120/220 and 4×5-inch view camera, and said she would never use Photoshop.

Her most recent project was an exploration of New Orleans to mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. 

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