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Friday, June 5, 2015

Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark, posing with large scale Polaroid photos from her 2012 Prom Series.                
Beautiful Emine Posing, Trabzon,
Turkey, 1965, Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark died about a week ago, May 25, 2015, at the age of seventy-five. As the song lyrics says: "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." I don't usually do memorial pieces and I must confess, though I'd seen her work before, I had never associated a name with the deeply emotive figures she portrayed. As with so many artists, the final punctuation mark brings to prominence the lifetime message preceding it. Mary Ellen Mark has been credited with bringing to life the "haunting portraits of adults and children on the margins of society." That's not to say Ms. Mark didn't also bring to life the rich and famous notables occupying the mainstream of the political, entertainment, literary, and artistic worlds. She did. Her lifetime portfolio is peppered with such faces, but even at that, she portrayed them appearing as they were rather than as we like to think of them. Most are deeply insightful--some disarmingly so. Her work has been displayed beneath the banner of such publications as Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, the New Yorker, Life, and Vanity Fair. Eighteen of her photo collections have been published as books. The list of accolades and awards she's garnered would lead one to think she may just have collected them all. In fact, it might be simpler to enumerate those honorary tributes she's not received. In the interest of brevity and the reader's time, I shall do neither.
Gibbs Senior High School Prom, 1976, Mary Ellen Mark

Nikka Simmons and Isiah Merrill,
Newark, N.J., 2006, Mary Ellen Mark.
Born and raised in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park, she first displayed an interest in photography using an old Box Brownie camera around the age of nine. With a BFA in painting and art history, Mary Ellen Mark graduated from the University of Pennsylvania before working briefly for the Philadelphia City Planning Department. She returned to her alma mater where she obtained her master's degree in photojournalism at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication in 1964. In the following months, she received a Fulbright Scholarship to photograph in Turkey for a year. While in Europe, she also photographed England, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Spain. Her Beautiful Emine Posing (above, right) resulted from this sojourn, helping to bring her name and work to the foreground of journalistic photography in 1974 with the publication of her first volume of collected work, Passport. Her Gibbs Senior High School Prom (above), from 1976, and the photo of Nikka Simmons and Isiah Merrill (left) are representative of a long term series featuring teens from around the country on their "big night." These photos were all shot with a Polaroid 20×24 [inch] camera. Her assistant, John Reuter, notes: "There are only five in existence. The camera is basically like taking pictures with a refrigerator. There are lots of moving parts and you need more than one person to operate it.”

Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, and Art Garfunkel “French-kissing” on the set of Carnal Knowledge, 1971, Mary Ellen Mark
Johnny Depp, 1993, Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark has often served as a unit photographer on movie sets, shooting production stills for films beginning with a Look magazine feature, in 1969 in which she photographed Federico Fellini shooting his film, Satyricon. Later such efforts have included Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant, Mike Nichols' Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge (above), as well as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. In all, Mark has photographed the production of more than 100 movies, her most recent being director Baz Luhrmann's Australia in 2008. These opportunities to observe celebrity icons behind the scene, not being iconic, is seen in her triple portrait (above) from the Carnal Knowledge set. Their clowning around allowed Mark to capture the unwary essence rather than the external images of her famous subjects. Her intimate portrait of Johnny Depp (right) dating from 1993, is imbued with both pathos and poignancy.

Amanda and Her Cousin Amy, 1990, Mary Ellen Mark

 Hillary, Frankly, Mary Ellen Mark,
2000, during Clinton's first
Senate campaign.
Ellen Mark brought these same qualities to virtually all her portrait images, sometimes, shocking, sometimes, funny, sometimes simply weird. Her 1990 Amanda and her Cousin Amy (above) has been one of Mark's most famous photos--troubling at first glance, then strangely amusing as the two pint-size girls emulate the bathing beauties foisted upon them by advertising media. Mark is at her best when she portrays children, not as "cute kids" but as little adults. As the little adults grow older, her images of them become more and more disturbing, less imaginary, more real, even dangerous, as seen in her Rat, 16, and Mike, 17 (below), Seattle, 1983. At the same time, Mark was equally adept at creating public images with her camera as she was in peering through them. Her New York Magazine photo of a radiant, smiling Hillary Clinton (right) would seem to be one of the most flattering photos ever taken of the politically ambitious, former First Lady, former senator, and former Secretary of State.

Rat, 16, and Mike, 17, Seattle, 1983, Mary Ellen Mark
To the other extreme, her portrayal of Mother Teresa at the Home for the Dying, 1980, (below), is flattering only in a figurative sense, portraying Mark's subject at her best, at her work--iconic, but only in a spiritual rather than a physical sense. She was not beautiful, except in that her caring love was beautiful. In a real sense, there is this same caring love on the part of Mary Ellen Mark in virtually all her photos, whether depicting the famous, the infamous, or the would-be famous, her photos inevitably exposed the essence over the external. Incidentally, this same love manifested itself in her often amusing animal portraits as well, as in her Jesse Damm and Nick (bottom), Llano, California, from 1994, as if to suggest there is no greater love than that between a boy and his dog.

Mother Teresa at the Home for the Dying, 1980, Mary Ellen Mark
Jesse Damm and Nick, Llano, California, 1994, Mary Ellen Mark

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