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Mary Ellen Mark’s Encounters

In the cannon of documentary photographers, Mary Ellen Mark ranks as one of the most important. A new book and exhibition, Encounters, provides both a cross section of her life’s work focusing on 5 of her iconic photo series whose publication in book form significantly contributed to Mark’s reputation.

Mary Ellen Mark, whether photographing the socially disadvantaged, those on the fringes of society, or celebrities, told the stories of her subjects without prejudice. She often followed her subjects for extended periods of time, sometimes even decades.

But as Amanda Maddox, lead curator at World Press Photo, says at the start of her essay in the book, “Is it possible for a retrospective on Mary Ellen Mark to truly encompass the scope of her photographic production? And if so, can the complicated, sometimes messy histories and contexts that informed her output be encompassed as well?” A new book published by Steidl in conjunction with an exhibition at C/O Berlin sets out to answer the question.

Mark was born in Philadelphia and went on to earn a BA in painting and art history, along with an MA in photojournalism, from the University of Pennsylvania. As a freelance photographer, and in association with the Magnum photo agency from 1977 to 1982, Mark garnered acclaim for her photographs, published in magazines like Life, Look, Rolling Stone, Stern, and The New Yorker among others. She worked in countries around the globe, from the Americas, to Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Mark’s most iconic series

Cynthia Galves, Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles, California, 1996 © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark
Cynthia Galves, Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles, California, 1996 © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark

She published 21 monographs during her life, and starting in the late 1970’s, exhibited her work widely in museums and galleries. But as Katherine Schnönegg, the head of the photograph collection at the Münchner Stadtmuseum writes in her introduction to the book, “To date, Mark’s work has appeared in nearly 300 solo and group exhibitions, but no survey of her complete works has yet been organized. Mary Ellen Mark Encounters represents the first comprehensive exhibition of the photographer’s oeuvre.”

Encounters focuses on 5 of Mark’s most iconic series. There is Ward 81, where she photographed women on a psychiatric hospital in Oregon; Falkland Road, a series on the prostitutes who live on in Mumbai, India; Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity in Calcutta, a tribute to Mother Teresa’s charitable work; Indian Circus which documents traveling circus families; and Mark’s long term project Streetwise, for which she followed the life of Erin Blackwell, known as Tiny, over the course of 30 years from teenage runaway through being a mother in trying living conditions.

Mother Teresa at the home for the dying, Kolkata, 1980 © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark
Mother Teresa at the home for the dying, Kolkata, 1980 © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark
Dog trainer, Old Delhi, 1979, Cibachrome © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark
Dog trainer, Old Delhi, 1979, Cibachrome © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark
Rekha with beads in her mouth, Falkland Road, Bombay, 1978, Cibachrome © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark
Rekha with beads in her mouth, Falkland Road, Bombay, 1978, Cibachrome © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark

Five decades of photography

Along with these well-known photo series, the book also contains some of Mark’s other projects, including series on life in New York City, a hospital program for heroin addicts, work on families in Appalachia, a series on white supremacists, and rural poverty.

“Many of the core themes of her later work can be found in these reportages from the 1970s: poverty and homelessness; institutions to treat drug addiction and illness; circus life and performance; women in the various roles of teenager, mother, and prostitute. One of the aims of our exhibition project is to highlight these thematic continuities in the photographer’s oeuvre and to contextualize her well-known, wide-ranging series, most of which originated as photojournalistic reports, not only within her larger body of work, but also within the history of contemporary photography,” Schnönegg writes.

The photograph series are presented alongside magazine spreads, notebooks, letters, contact sheets, and other archival materials. These materials help to explore how the various series went from conception to publication in magazines, and eventually to publication in book form. They also work to show some of her editing process, how she worked to put the photos together, and what her eye was looking for.

The Damm family in their car, Los Angeles, California, 1987 © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark for the photographs
The Damm family in their car, Los Angeles, California, 1987 © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark for the photographs

“Using various prints the photographer made during her life, and without distinguishing between printing templates and exhibition prints, selected print matter, and archive material, the exhibition aims to illuminate the intersections between reportage and art, series and single image, commission and freelance work in Mark’s oeuvre. It portrays the photographer as being equally a photojournalist and a portraitist, documenting unnamed people on the edge of society as well as celebrities she met as a commissioned art and culture photographer,” writes Schnönegg.

Along with Maddox’s and Schnönegg ‘s essays, other texts are contributed by Sophia Greuff, curator at C/O Berlin; Melissa Harris, editor-at-large of Aperture; and Mary Panzer, photo historian. The essays delve into Mark’s life, explore her motivation, style, and personal history, and the themes she covered, along with looking at her contemporaries, to place Mark’s work in the broader history of photography.

The book and exhibition, with the photographs made over a span of 5 decades, provides a cross-section of Mark’s life work. And as to answer Maddox’s original question, while it would be impossible to cover all of Mark’s work in a single exhibition or book, Encounters, does a wonderful job of delving into Mark’s expansive archive, and putting it into a context that is able to show not just Mark’s amazing eye and skill, but the soul of her work, and the humanistic documentary style that she made her own.

Kissing in a bar, New York, 1977 © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark
Kissing in a bar, New York, 1977 © 2023 Mary Ellen Mark

The book Mary Ellen Mark Encounters is published by Steidl in partnership with C/O Berlin and can be purchased on their website here.
The exhibition of Mary Ellen Mark Encounters is currently on display at C/O Berlin through January 18, 2024.

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