Mary Ellen Mark
An older woman is wearing a massive pair of round glasses and her white curls are perfectly styled. She clings to her glass on the bar counter as she kisses her companion on the lips with gusto. She’s already stubbed out her cigarette, but perhaps the couple is thinking “the night is still young.” A black and white photograph full of joie de vivre. A moment of encounter—and one of the many spontaneous photographs taken by Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015).
Since the 1960s, the US documentarian and portraitist has also always advocated for people on the fringes of society. Both her personal work and photographs made on assignment were taken with immense empathy. As a documentary photographer led by humanist ideals Mark never avoided those in need or excluded from society—whether homeless children in Seattle, the mentally ill in Oregon, or sex workers in Mumbai. Instead, she developed her own visual language to respectfully depict these individuals and to document their unique circumstances. Her work is regarded as a successor to great socio-critical photographers of the past such as W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans.
Mark herself came of age during the heyday of the women‘s rights movement in the US. Unsurprisingly, she often turns her gaze toward women and girls. For her work, she would often live for weeks alongside her subjects, creating visual character studies and narratives, while never losing sight of those key singular images. After publishing her photographs, she often remained in contact with the individuals she portrayed, in some cases, photographing them over a period of years. Her connection to her subjects was often deep and personal.
The exhibition Mary Ellen Mark . Encounters features five iconic projects created by the photographer in the 1970s and 1980s, later publishing them in a series of photobooks that played a crucial role in cementing her reputation. Ward 81 collects her documentation of women in a state mental institution in Oregon over a period of weeks, Falkland Road is a reportage on sex workers in Mumbai, Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity is an eponymous exploration both of the woman and her mission, Indian Circus reproduces a series depicting traveling circus families, while Mark's award-winning Streetwise project and subsequent, Tiny: Streetwise Revisited show her ongoing commitment to telling the story of Erin Charles, who was thirteen when they first met, and known as Tiny. Mark began the project when Tiny was living on the streets and continued photographing her (and eventually her ten children) over the next thirty years.
Mark is one of the most important photographers working in photojournalism and her photo series appeared in countless internationally respected magazines and newspapers including Time, GEO, Stern, Life, and New York Times Magazine and won numerous prizes. At the same time, Mark belonged to the generation of photographers who were powerfully affected by shifts in photojournalism and magazine photography in the 1980s. Her career benefited from the fact that she taught workshops and photographed portraits of actors as well as working as a traditional editorial photographer. She approached the glitzy world of film with the same sensitivity and openness she brought to her other work.
The retrospective includes her portraits of actors and notable people. It also shows her series Twins (2001–02) and Prom (2006–09) in order to reveal the full spectrum of her photographic oeuvre as a documentary and portrait photographer whose one-of-a-kind images gravitated from magazine pages into photobooks and finally onto exhibition walls.
Mary Ellen Mark . Encounters is the first major retrospective of this renowned photographer's work worldwide. Melissa Harris and Sophia Greiff (C/O Berlin Foundation) have curated the exhibition, conceived in cooperation with The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation—the New York-based archive of the photographer’s work. The show brings together well-known and obscure prints and also presents rare archival materials including contact sheets, letters, and notebooks. An exhibition catalogue is published by Steidl.
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Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015) studied painting and art history at the University of Pennsylvania, before completing a masters in photojournalism at the Annenberg School for Communication. In 1963 she started focusing on socially critical narrative photography and embarked on projects around the world. She expanded commissions into independent projects over many years and published the resulting photographs in leading magazines including Life, People, Vogue, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. Later, the photographs were included in over twenty thematic monographs. Mark taught workshops and received many international fellowships and prestigious awards for her work before she died in New York at the age of 75.