Issue #216  6/4/2015
Photographer Mary Ellen Mark passes away

By Marthe Smith

Mary Ellen taken in Haiti in 1994 (Photo by Grant Delin)
Mary Ellen taken in Haiti in 1994 (Photo by Grant Delin)

As her emblematic long black braids suggested--three strands representing the mind, body and spirit, intimately and inextricably linked to one another per Native American culture--Mary Ellen Mark connected in a similar fashion with her subjects and told stories worthy of passing along for generations to come, as only the greatest documentary photographers are able to do. Honesty and compassion are distinguishing qualities of her work.

Her subjects ranged from those on the fringe of society and the important social issues affecting them, including the homeless, prostitutes, mental health patients and circus performers, to celebrities, world leaders and dogs. She held an annual Christmas party for dogs.

In an interview in Darkroom Magazine in 1987, Mark said, "Much of life is luck. No one can choose whether he’s born into a wealthy, privileged home or born into extreme poverty. I guess I’m interested in people who haven’t had as much of a chance because they reach out more, they need more. They touch me. I do a lot of other work to support myself, but those kinds of projects are the reasons I became a photographer."

Born March 20, 1940 in Philadelphia and raised in nearby Elkins Park, she began photographing with a Brownie box camera when she was nine. She graduated with a BFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1962 and received her Masters in Photojournalism from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in 1964.

She published 19 books, notably among them: Ward 81, Mother Teresa's Mission of Charity in Calcutta, Streetwise (a photo essay first published in LIFE on runaway children in Seattle which also became the basis of the academy award nominated film of the same name, directed and photographed by her husband, Martin Bell), Twins and Indian Circus. Her photo-essays and portraits appeared in The New Yorker, LIFE, New York Times, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.

She was a member of Magnum from 1977 until 1981.

In the '90s she added fashion and advertising photography to her body of work as the demand for photojournalism began to wane. She worked with black and white film saying digital was not for her.

Her printer, Chuck Kelton, noted that she was also enormously gifted as a teacher, having taught workshops in documentary photography. She was always generous in sharing her knowledge and ideas with photographers of any skill level.

Mark had received numerous awards including the 2014 Lifetime Achievement in Photography Award from the George Eastman House, as well as the Outstanding Contribution Photography Award from the World Photography Organization.

She died Monday, May 25 in Manhattan from complications from myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disease caused by bone marrow failure.