Whether prostitutes in Bombay, homeless teenagers in Seattle or circus performers in Vietnam, Mary Ellen Mark’s (b.1940) images have excelled at recording the lives of people on the margins of society in a dramatic and visually compelling way. Mark's images resonate with emotional and psychological force. They are rooted in reality, and many of them record the faces behind social issues.
In her twenties, Mark travelled throughout Turkey and the rest of Europe on a Fulbright scholarship, taking pictures wherever she went. Themes and qualities that continue in Mark’s work today were already present in those early pictures. A photograph of a girl on a street in Trabzon, Turkey exemplifies a key theme in Mark’s work: children trying to act like adults.
In 1967 Mark’s career took another direction when she was hired to shoot production stills. Mark’s film work too has produced memorable images. Her shot of Federico Fellini directing Satyricon is an excellent example.
In 1968 Mark made her first trip to India, where she would return frequently and visit Bombay’s Falkland Road; a street lined with brothels. Although Mark prefers to work in black and white, for the Falkland Road project, her editors insisted that she photograph in colour. The assignment was a technical challenge, but the intense colours of the rooms and the women’s saris give Mark’s pictures an electric vividness.
In Mexico and Vietnam as well as India, Mark has photographed circus performers and animal acts. Both in the ring and behind the scenes, she presents the performers as ordinary people who do extraordinary things – a parallel which runs evenly throughout her work.
Text based on an essay by Charles Hagen.