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  • May 29, 2015

The Fearless Gaze of Mary Ellen Mark: A Friend Remembered

Author
Sarah Leen

Iconic documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark passed away on Monday, May 25. She was well known for her penetrating work and for the number of photographers’ lives she touched in a myriad of ways. In 1988 she photographed a story for National Geographic magazine in Australia entitled “Sydney’s Changing Face,” which documented Sydney’s immigrant populations. In honor of her incredible legacy, images from that story are accompanied by remembrances from National Geographic photographers, admirers, and friends.

I first saw Mary Ellen Mark’s images in the mid ’70s, when I encountered her Fulbright Fellowship photographs from Turkey in a small but delicious book called Passport. Then came her groundbreaking work on mental health in Ward 81 and her tender images of Indian prostitutes in Falkland Road. This work showed me, a young wannabe photographer, that photography was, yes, a passport to the world, but even more it was a vocation, and if practiced with passion and integrity, would allow you a meaningful life. This changed my trajectory and put me on the path that has lead me to where I am today.

Picture of photographer Mary Ellen Mark standing with an Australian man in a black and white photo
Mary Ellen Mark on assignment in Sydney, Australia, in 1988
Photograph by David Liittschwager

What I love so much about her work is her fearless gaze. She looked at and photographed her subjects with respect, never feeling sorry for them nor pandering to them, whether they were a Marlon Brando or a homeless family living out of their car. Everyone received the same unflinching consideration. It takes courage to see the world this way and that was Mary Ellen to the core.

As a friend she was fierce, passionate, and utterly generous. She was all about loyalty. If you were fortunate enough to be in her circle she became your counselor, greatest advocate, and extremely fun and mischievous companion. Once she chose a person, like her decades-long subject Tiny in Streetwise, or a topic like circuses or blindness, or a place like India or Oaxaca, she would return again and again. This approach resulted in the incredible books and films that are so beloved to us now. She loved to work and she was always brimming with ideas, continually pushing herself and her boundaries. She never rested on her many laurels and she would never rest in peace.

Yes, she was a diva, but she earned every bit of it. Just spend some time with her work. Deep, brilliant, and everlasting.

I will miss her like crazy. Enough said. —Sarah Leen, director of photography, National Geographic magazine


Picture of people posing inside a living room, around a TV with an American TV show on it, and with a picture of a mime and cheetahs hanging on the wall
A family poses inside their apartment in Cabramatta, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, which is also known as Vietnamata.

Susan Welchman, Former Photo Editor, National Geographic Magazine

During my 1970s art school days I followed Mary Ellen Mark’s images. She was so far ahead. Many years later, I spent several weeks with her in Australia while producing the first of National Geographic magazine’s single topic issues. I assigned Mary Ellen to Redfern, a rough part of Sydney. She whipped everyone up to a point of frenzy before starting to shoot—I understood this fueled her unique vision. I gave her a silver hair clip my father had gotten for me, which I later saw she kept and wore.

Picture of two women with curled hair dressed in very decorative bridesmaid dresses and holding bouquets.
Engulfed in finery, maid of honor Lody Elhlou, right, and bridesmaid Gloria will join the reception line greeting wedding guests at a suburban wedding in Fairfield, Sydney, Australia.
Picture of two school girls in their matching uniforms with a big stuffed teddy bear sitting on the ground next to them
Proud in their uniforms, Tanya, left, and Sonya Tonna attend St. Mary’s Primary School in Erskineville, a suburb of Sydney, where half the students are minorities.

Ed Kashi, National Geographic Photographer

When I was 18 and just learning photography, I saw Mary Ellen Mark’s book Ward 81. It was a beautiful black-and-white project about a women’s mental asylum in Oregon. It was that book that set me in motion. It was then I decided to devote my life to documentary work and photojournalism. Her work embodied the visual power, intimacy, social consciousness, and deep engagement with the world I’ve strived to achieve for the intervening 37 years.

Picture of a funeral procession, a boy carries a bowl of joss sticks, and an older girl carries a picture of the deceased
At the funeral of Yang Chan Rong, 53, his eldest daughter, Ling Xiao, carries his picture, and his son David Ling Zen carries a bowl of joss sticks in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

Jodi Cobb, National Geographic Photographer

It was 1997 or 1998 and National Geographic was launching its TV channel in India. I was among the representatives sent to Mumbai to publicize the launch. Even though I’d never been there, for some reason I was tasked with leading our little group on a shopping expedition. So I went to the best for help: I called Mary Ellen Mark in New York. She wasn’t in, but 30 minutes later a fax from her arrived: Stall 47 in the Mumbai Silver Bazaar.

It turned out to be a tiny hole-in-the-wall filled with dusty old worthless knickknacks, and I was shocked. But I started to chat with the shopkeeper, told him Mary Ellen Mark had sent us, and his face lit up. New York photographer! He reached behind the counter, pulled out a glorious trove of antique gold and silver necklaces, bracelets, pendants, and earrings, threw them on a scale and charged us only by the weight.

Many others will write about Mary Ellen’s talent, drive, warmth, and uncompromising standards, her exquisite photographs and genius for storytelling, but there was always more to Mary Ellen. She liked the physical manifestations of a culture—a bracelet, textile, Mao button—along with the human. Both had stories to tell. And with both, she knew how to look beyond the dust, the clutter, and the crowd to discover those hidden treasures.

Picture of a young girl with her head covered sitting on a white prayer sheet at her school
A student with her head covered sits on a prayer sheet at Nur Muslim Primary School, established in 1983. The school is in Canterbury, a suburb of Sydney.
Picture of an older woman wearing a black shawl sitting in a room filled with candles
Mother Michaila lost an arm fighting for Russia in World War I. She is pictured here in Kentlyn, a suburb of Sydney.

William Albert Allard, National Geographic Photographer

I can’t do any kind of justice to what Mary Ellen meant in our world of documentary photography. Who really can? She was brilliant, persistent, and prolific almost beyond belief. I often wondered how she could be in so many different places, teach so many, so well, and continue to take on major project after major project. She was like a heroine to me. We had a kind of mutual admiration society but probably met face-to-face no more than a half dozen times at best over half a century. She said things in public about my work that I’d like to think are true but wouldn’t dare proclaim myself. I will miss not having had the chance to see her more often, know her better. When she got up to leave the Annenberg Theater recently, where we were for some tech testing before our presentations, we kissed on the lips. I didn’t realize then it was goodbye.

Picture of a man walking through the streets of a dilapidated neighborhood and playing with his younger cousin by picking him up
In the heart of Sydney’s Redfern district, Charlie Coffee, an indigenous Australian, playfully grabs his cousin Mickey Hickey.

Stephanie Sinclair, National Geographic Photographer

To me, Mary Ellen is like the grandmother of the concerned photographers. I doubt she’d like to be called that, but it’s a term of the highest endearment. The intimacy and emotion in her work is simply unrivaled—I mean, even people we’d consider master photographers in the genre have looked to her for guidance and inspiration over the years. Yet, despite this uber-legend status, she was never above taking the time to educate and encourage students and professionals alike. What more could you ask for in a matriarch?

I had the pleasure of witnessing this firsthand only a couple weeks ago in Mexico. Mary Ellen and I were both in town for a photography and film festival at a local university. I was thrilled to see her again after several years, and sure enough, there she was as always, long hair perfectly combed and braided, having traveled a long way to share her work and wisdom with students and fans. I was lucky enough to be able to give her a big hug before she traveled back home. We blew kisses to each other as her car pulled out of the hotel parking lot, rounded the corner and disappeared. This is my last memory of Mary Ellen and something I will forever cherish. And I am grateful that her giant heart and spirit will forever continue to speak to us through her photographs.

Picture of a man in a suit holding a baby in what looks like a christening gown outside of a home
Six-month-old Leeka is cradled by her father in Carramar, a suburb of Sydney. This family fled Cambodia in 1980. Here, they are dressed for a wedding, which blended Australian and Cambodian traditions.
Picture of two boys in matching school uniforms sitting on a bench outside the school, one is consoling the other
A student who moved to Australia from the Philippines is consoled by a friend after another student took a ball away from him on the playground at St. Mary’s Primary School in Erskinville, a suburb of Sydney.

See more of Mary Ellen Mark’s work on her website.

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