An Icon In Modern Photography: Mary Ellen Mark

An Icon In Modern Photography: Mary Ellen Mark

In celebration of women who inspire us, we’re profiling modern American photographer Mary Ellen Mark.

Mary Ellen Mark is an icon in modern photography. I remember seeing her photos for the first time and it inspired me to photograph a local homeless shelter in my small college town. She was a great storyteller and champion of the forgotten and overlooked in society.

Primarily working in black and white, Mark is one of the best-known female photojournalists. Although she is widely known as a photojournalist and documentary photographer, her images go beyond any label. Her work isn’t like any other news photographs because they are deeply rooted in reality capturing the social struggles and issues of the time in the faces of her subjects.

Mark was born in 1940 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She discovered her love of photography at age nine. Her first camera was a Kodak Brownie. She earned a Master’s Degree in photojournalism from the Annenberg School for Communication in 1964. That next year she received a Fulbright Scholarship to take photos in Turkey.

New York City featured prominently in her work. The environment of the city in the 1960s shaped her career. It also contributed to the direction of her work that focused primarily on photographing people outside the social norms. The topics of her photographs included homelessness, loneliness, drug addiction, and prostitution.

In 1983, she did an assignment for Life magazine spending time with runaways and street kids in Seattle, Washington. She captured the heartbreaking lives of these children and the photos became the basis for the Academy Award-nominated documentary film, “Streetwise.”

“I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence,” Mark said.

Mark worked on film sets shooting production stills and had a thriving publishing career. Included in her filmography is Alice’s Restaurant, Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Apocalypse Now and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. During Mark’s career, she has contributed to many publications including, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. In addition, she published 18 books including “Passport,” “Ward 81, ” “Falkland Road,” and “Mother Teresa’s Mission of Charity in Calcutta,” just to name a few.

A true documentarian, Mark left a legacy that inspires photographers today. Check out her interview with CBS for more about Mary Ellen Mark.