Mary Ellen Mark was the kind of photographer who pushed the limits. Her photographs were at times shocking, emotional, and hard to look at but above all else, they were intimate.
The iconic photographer couldn’t help but get emotionally involved in the lives of her subjects who — as The Washington Post’s Matt Schudel put it — were “human beings driven by circumstance to the ragged edges of society.”
When asked in a 1987 interview with Darkroom Magazine why she’s drawn to people from disadvantaged subcultures she 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.”
Mary Ellen Mark died on May 25 in New York City. Her studio manager, Julia Bezgin told the New York Times the cause was myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease that affects the body’s bone marrow and blood. She was 75.
Throughout her career, Mark never became as intertwined with a subject as she did with “Tiny,” one of the subjects in her 1988 book “Streetwise” and corresponding Academy Award nominated documentary of the same name that Mark made with her husband, Martin Bell. “Streetwise,” which started as a 1983 assignment on Seattle’s homeless and runaway youth for Life Magazine, became one of Mark’s most iconic works.
Mark first met Erin Blackwell, also known as “Tiny,” outside of a Seattle club in 1983. She recalls “Tiny,” who was 13 at the time, exiting a taxicab with another girl into the parking lot, a place known to be filled with street kids drinking and getting high.
“They were very young teenagers. They were made up like they were playing dress-up with makeup and short skirts. They were dressed like seductive prostitutes.” Mark recalls in an interview with the Leica Camera Blog. Mark added, “I walked too directly and quickly toward her because I wanted to photograph her. She thought I was the police so she screamed and ran away.” I asked everyone who she was and how I could find her. Her name was Tiny and she sometimes lived at home and sometimes lived on the street. The next day I went to her home and found her there with her mother and that was the beginning of our long saga over many years.”
Both the book and the film received critical acclaim f0r their poignant portrayal of troubled youth on the streets of Seattle. Tiny was, as Mark put it a video for an online fundraising campaign, “beautiful, engaging and impossible to forget.” The young woman became a cult figure and was the subject of news segments. The readers and viewers were able to follow Tiny’s saga for decades as Mark and Bell continued to document major developments in her life.
“Things have changed so much for you. Tell us about your life now,” Mark asked Tiny in a 2005 interview published in Aperture. “My life now is much better,” She said. “I have a husband, Will, who takes care of me and the kids, and I have somewhere to sleep, eat, and take a shower, and I don’t have to worry about money because he works. … It’s kind of boring, but I’d rather be doing what I’m doing now than be running around downtown, looking for my next hit or a place to sleep or eat. So my life is my kids and my husband, the home. And I would never give it up for that type of life ever again.”
“What do you remember about meeting Martin and me in 1983?” Mark asked. “It was great. … I felt spoiled when you guys would take me out to eat, or buy me things — stuff that my mom didn’t do. That felt good. I actually felt like I had a parent, somebody that cared for me,” Tiny answered.
In late October of this year, a new hardcover book by Mark entitled “Tiny, Streetwise Revisited,” is set for publication.
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