The Photography of Mary Ellen Mark

The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, CA, USA, 1987, By Mary Ellen Mark

Last week I ordered a copy of Exposure by Mary Ellen Mark from and it arrived today. There is something about fine art photography books that just makes images seem so much more magnificent when you see them in print vs. just online.

For those of you who have not seen Mary Ellen Mark’s work, it is really something. It is some of the finest portraiture work done to date by any photographer. Central to Mark’s photography is a certain intimacy with the subjects that she shoots. And getting intimate with society’s fringes is not always the easiest thing to do. Mark’s subjects include some of the most interesting every day people you’ve seen, but they also include circus oddities, homeless families, runaway kids, and women locked far, far, away deep in mental hospitals.

Much of Mark’s work pushes the boundaries. One of her photos is of a homeless family in bed together. The family had granted Mark unlimited access to their lives for a photo essay that she was doing for Life Magazine at the time. In the photograph a stepfather has his arms wrapped around his step daughter as his wife sleeps on his other side. His drug paraphernalia sits on the nearby dresser. The stepdaughter is awake and has this emotionally haunted and empty look in her eyes as the photograph is taken. It’s a painful photograph to see and makes you want to cry.

At the time the photograph was taken Marks tried to talk to the girl and had a gut feeling that she was being abused by her stepfather. The girl denied this at the time, although it did come out that she was being abused a few years later. Mark has a photograph of the same family years earlier (see above) when they were living in their car with a vicious pit bull.

Another of Mark’s photos shows a boy about 15 with a hand gun. According to the book he told Mark that he’d stolen the gun in a home burglary. When Mark photographed the boy he was squatting in a vacant building in Seattle with his friend.

Photographing society’s disenfranchised is never easy. So often it borders on just exploitation of these people more than anything else. But when done right, these photographs can tell a story and have power. They remind us that we are all human. And they remind us that those who are worse off than us need our help. They remind us that pain exists in the world and that we ought not lose sight of this.

Exposure represents Mark’s most complete anthology to date. She has other books as well, but Exposure is the best and broadest representation of her work.

Much of Mark’s work also is international. Her circus photographs from India are also some of her strongest.

To learn more about Mark you can check out her internet site here. Her Wikipedia page is here and here also is an interview she did with Salon from a number of years ago.

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