Wednesday, May 27, 2015

So Long, Mary Ellen Mark


The photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, died yesterday at age 75. She was one of the gifted lens women and men I was privileged to know back in the days when I worked as a reporter for Life magazine. I was never actually assigned to a story with her, but I got to know her in the halls of the offices, a slim, raven-haired woman with her trademark two long braids and the kindest of eyes. I remember how she stopped to talk with me when I was first hired, to welcome me into that rarified world that was photojournalism in the 1980s. She was one of my favorites, and not just because her work was so truthful, but also because she had the rare ability to make every person she encountered feel truly seen.


Though she photographed many celebrities (how could I resist that photo of Jeff Bridges) and later in life shot some memorable ad campaigns, her true passion was for society's outcasts, the runaway street kids in Seattle, the teen prostitutes of Bombay, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the people who felt just a little bit weird in their skin. Without judgment or artifice, Mary Ellen Mark saw their humanity and she captured it on  film, usually black and white, so that the rest of us could be awakened too. She painted with light and shadow and emotion, hers and her subjects', whose essence she was always able to touch. Her subjects trusted her, and because she tended to stick around for a while, they grew to love her too. As indeed, her colleagues loved her.



She was nominated for an Academy Award for Streetwise, the documentary about Seattle runaways that she made with her husband, Martin Bell, and a brilliant reporter at Life, Cheryl McCall, also now deceased, with whom Mary Ellen was often paired on assignments. Streetwise had been a Life story before it was a documentary. In recent years, Mary Ellen had gone back to find the subjects of that story, and was working on a new book about one of them, a girl, now a woman, named Tiny. The photo at left is a famous one of Tiny, taken in 1983, when the Life photo essay appeared. The image below is from the same shoot, every frame a kick in the solar plexus.


On Facebook today, all the former Life reporters and writers are queuing up to sing the praises of this extraordinary soul. One of them, my friend Linda, simply wrote: "Think Cheryl and Mary Ellen are working together again? Here's hoping. Or as Hemingway'd say, 'Isn't it pretty to think so?' "


So long, dear Mary Ellen. I hope I'll see you later. I am so much the richer for having crossed paths with you in this mysterious life. Thank you for the great work you did and for the exquisitely gracious woman you always were.


10 comments:

  1. What a lovely woman and such a loving homage you've given to her today. I've never heard about her before but I'm so glad you shared this. She made the world a better place and that lives on.

    I'm so sorry that you lost such a wonderful friend.

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  2. Great stuff. Thank you for introducing me to this woman's work. I especially like your comment that "she had the rare ability to make every person she encountered feel truly seen." Nice observation and from the photos you shared, it seems to be quite true.

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  3. A lovely tribute to a truly talented woman.

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  4. Of course I recognize her photos but I am shamed to say I did not know her name.
    What a beautiful woman she obviously was, how incredibly talented. How lucky you were to have known her.

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  5. A truly touching portrait of a gentle soul who had photography as her instrument to show the world life in all its hurtfulness and beauty.. Not knowing this lady, I am now aware of her and her legacy she has left in her photographs.Thank you for sharing this knowledge, and again, it was a lovely post you have written.. I send you hugs to help in your sadness at the loss of this lady.. from across the pond J

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  6. I knew some of her work...My condolences to you.

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  7. How amazing to have known her! I was so sorry to hear the news. She was a terrific photographer. (That photo with the girls holding the babies, wow. As you said, a kick in the solar plexus. And that Jeff Bridges photo -- I'd like a POSTER of that!)

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  8. A wonderful tribute, thank you for posting. I don't think I've seen her work before. I love it.
    And the quote by Hemingway, one of my favorites.
    xxoo

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  9. That was beautiful -- a perfect tribute. How wonderful to have crossed paths with such a beautiful person and artist --

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  10. I read this post earlier and since then I started paying attention to the retrospectives going up about her. She truly was a remarkable talent and soul. How beautiful that you had some time with her.

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