In May of this year, we lost one of our best photographers at the young age of 75. Mary Ellen Mark is considered a humanist photographer, and she is most famous for in-depth documentary projects and portraiture. Widely published, her work for Life magazine sent her to Seattle - the 'most livable city' - to photograph runaways and street kids. The assignment resulted in her 1988 opus, Streetwise; a much-loved and heralded book that later became a documentary.
In 1977, Mark joined Magnum Photos - making her one of very few female photographers there. Four years later, she left Magnum to open her own studios. Trained street dogs, costumed pets, disabled children - all hauntingly vulnerable, and photographed with a superb eye and unfiltered lens. In 1976, she lived for six weeks at the Oregon State Mental Institution in Salem, Oregon. At the time, it was the only locked ward for women in the state. The subject seems discomforting, but with Mark's unfiltered lens, the photos reveal women with a range of human emotions: anger, playfulness, and sadness. “I wanted to do an essay on the personalities of people who are locked away to show a little bit of what they’re like, especially the women,” Mark said. And she did, just that, without sensationalism or staging the photos. The women are first and foremost, women.
Mark never converted to digital photography. And along with iconic photographs of everyday people and unusual people on the street, Mark also photographed a number of celebrities. And proms. And in Calcutta, she brought us views from Mother Theresa's Missions of Charity in India.
Mary Ellen Mark had a bone marrow failure disorder that claimed her life. But a simple Google search will prove that she lives on in the ether and through her unfiltered lens. Read an interview with her in 2010, here; and visit her website, here. You can also find some of her most well-known photos at the Guardian's website, here.
Rest in peace, Mary Ellen Mark. Thank you for your work and the world you brought to all of us through your unfiltered lens.