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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Mary Ellen Mark

Dates:  1940, 20 March - 2015, 25 May
Born:  US, PA, Philadelphia
Died:  US, NY, New York City
Active:  US
American woman photographer.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Mary Ellen Mark
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK)

After studying painting and art history and gaining an MA in photojournalism from the University of Pennsylvania, Mary Ellen Mark started her career as a freelance photojournalist in the mid 1960s.
In 1965 she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to photograph in Turkey. There Mark established her signature style of combining a documentary approach with a fascination with the bizarre. She also established one of the key themes in her work: an interest in children acting like adults.
Returning to America in 1967, Mark moved to New York and worked as a photojournalist, publishing photo-stories in magazines such as the New York Times, Evergreen and Life. Mark also worked on film sets, taking production stills on films including Catch 22 and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Mark’s first solo exhibition, Ward 81, was a result of her work on the latter, when she returned to the high-security women’s mental hospital where it had been filmed.
An interest in people, especially women, on the edge of society is apparent throughout her work. Her projects include a series on prostitutes in Bombay’s Falkland Road (1978), street kids in Seattle (1983) and a study of Indian travelling circuses (1989). Mark continues to publish and exhibit her work to great acclaim and in 2001 was awarded the Cornell Capa Infinity Award from the International Center for Photography, New York. 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Victoria & Albert Museum and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 11 Nov 2011. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.

Biography provided by Focal Press 
Mark is among an elite group of photographers known around the world for her incisive style of documentary work that is both engaging and sensitive. Her subjects often seem exotic or unusual but Mark cultivates an intimate quality in the pictures that renders familiarity without diminishing the very human circumstances of the people in front of her camera. Before earning an MA (1965) in photojournalism at the University of Pennsylvania, Mark had bought her first Leica and had already traveled on a Fulbright grant to Turkey and later, India. By 1969 she had assignments doing production stills for films like Satyricon with Fellini. Her work has been published in Look, LIFE, Time, New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and Vanity Fair, only to name a few among a hundred periodicals. She was a member of Magnum from 1977 to 1981. High-quality book publications have been a major goal of Mark’s involvement with defined subcultures in society for almost three decades. Featured among these are teenage drug users in Seattle, women in a mental hospital, prostitutes in India, Mother Teresa, circus performers, and more recently, sets of identical twins (using Polaroid 20 24). A characteristic of Mark’s considerable talent is her ability to form a trusting relationship with her subjects to provide viewers with a compassionate, first-person encounter — almost as if Mark is a surrogate for the general public who would never otherwise have such privileged access to these vital human dramas. The emotions and intellects that Mark has affected with her photographic oeuvre is truly one of the outstanding contributions to the history of the medium. 
(Author: Ken White - Rochester Institute of Technology) 
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 

Further research

 Premium content for those who want to understand photography
References are available for subscribers.There is so much more to explore when you subscribe. 
René De Carufel
Mary Ellen Mark 
[The Photographer's Eye] 
2004, August
Family history 
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch.

Visual indexes

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Internet biographies

Terms and Conditions

Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
• Evans, Martin Marix (Executive ed.) 1995 Contemporary Photographers [Third Edition] (St. James Press - An International Thomson Publishing Company) [Expensive reference work but highly informative.] 
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Mary Ellen Mark.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Lahs-Gonzales, Olivia & Lippard, Lucy 1997 Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century. Selections from the Helen Kornblum Collection (Saint Louis Art Museum, D.A.P.) [Mary Ellen Mark is included in this overview of women photographers.] 
• Nature Conservancy 2001 In Response to Place: Photographs from the Nature Conservancy’s Last Great Places (Boston: Bulfinch Press - Little Brown and Company) [Location: Mary Ellen Mark covered for this book: Pribilof Islands, Alaska; Eastern Shore, Virginia] 


The wit and wisdom.

"I always wanted to photograph the universal subjects"
"I just think it‘s important to be direct and honest with people about why you‘re photographing them and what you‘re doing. After all, you are taking some of their soul."
"I‘m trying to please myself; certainly that‘s a big criterion… though in a sense, I don‘t take images just for myself. I take images that I think other people will want to see. I don‘t take pictures to put in a box and hide them. I want as many people to see them as possible."
"The difficulty with color is to go beyond the fact that it‘s color — to have it be not just a colorful picture but really be a picture about something. It‘s difficult. So often color gets caught up in color, and it becomes merely decorative. Some photographers use [it] brilliantly to make visual statements combining color and content; otherwise it is empty."
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