From the moment she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in 1964 with a degree in photojournalism until her recent death just over fifty years later, Mary Ellen Mark worked as a documentary photographer making intensely vivid, groundbreaking photo essays exploring the realities of people in a variety of complex, often difficult situations. A large majority of these people were women.
Mark’s work predates today’s focus on the abuse and suffering of women highlighted by the #MeToo movement and others, with numerous projects extensively exploring the lives of women in difficult, painful, at times nearly impossible situations. A passionate witness, her life’s work was to use photography and film to delve deeply into the lives of others as a way of embracing their humanity and sharing it with a larger audience, providing her subjects with a significant, often powerful voice.
In the 1970s Mark made a series of intimate black-and-white photographs of female patients in distress on Ward 81, the only locked ward for women in the Oregon State Hospital, publishing a book of the same name. In 1981 she published another volume, Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, a pioneering work in color on the lives of sex workers in Mumbai’s low-rent red light district. A few years later her work on Mother Teresa’s Mission of Charity in Calcutta came out as a book, illuminating the strength and commitment of this icon of generosity. Her work on Erin Blackwell, aka “Tiny,” a young runaway girl whom she met in 1983, and on Tiny’s community of friends living on the street, became the subject of an Academy Award-nominated film, Streetwise, as well as a second film, Tiny, and two books, tracing over three decades this young woman’s battle with poverty and drug addiction, as well as her role as mother to ten of her own children.
Mark also photographed teenagers at their high school graduation proms, which also became a book and a film, Prom. For another project she photographed twins in Twinsburg Ohio, producing a book and film, Twins. Then she made photographs and another film on the members of a circus in India, Circus of Dreams. She also made an iconic and haunting image of a young Turkish girl who survived a massive earthquake in her country, as well as photographing a homeless family living in a car in California for Life magazine, raising enormous amounts of money from readers. And she made portraits of many successful women, celebrities, among them Maya Angelou, Candice Bergen, Lillian Gish, Etta James, and Twinka.
“Mary Ellen Mark: The Lives of Women,” present photographs, films and ephemera to explore the work that Mark did over the last half of a century documenting a great variety of women in diverse situations.
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