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Mark, Mary Ellen


MARK, MARY ELLEN (1940– ), U.S. photographer. After growing up in suburban Philadelphia, Mark earned a bachelor's degree in painting and art history but decided she was not good enough to be a painter. She then earned a master's in photojournalism at the University of Pennsylvania, having chosen photography almost at random, she said, and falling in love with the camera the moment she held one in her hand. "From the very first night, that was it," she said. "I became obsessed by it. I knew immediately it would be my life's work. I knew I had a chance of being good at it." The camera proved her ticket to independence.

After traveling around Europe, Mark sought work in the late 1960s shooting film stills for Hollywood productions. It led to her first large-scale project. While shooting at the Oregon State Mental Hospital in 1973 for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, she befriended the hospital's director and was permitted to spend time living with and shooting the women of the institute's maximum security Ward 81 in 1976. This series of photographs is sentimental and disturbing at the same time, and fulfilled Mark's goal to portray the lives of "people who haven't had the best breaks in society." The book Ward 81 was published in 1979. "For years I'd planned to go live in a mental hospital," she said. "I wanted to see if I could feel something of what it was like to be set aside from society." At her own expense, she lived in the state's only locked ward for women. "I think I was interested because my father had several nervous breakdowns and was hospitalized several times," she said.

With a special affinity for working with women, she turned her attention to the brothels of Bombay, India, in 1978. She encountered violent resistance from some of her would-be subjects, but she befriended a few, leading to a series of color photographs published as Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay in 1981. She said the book "was meant almost as a metaphor for entrapment, for how difficult it is to be a woman." She did a series on Mother Teresa of Calcutta for Life magazine, published as Photographs of Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity in Calcutta in 1985 as well as a series depicting street children in Seattle who turn to prostitution and drugs as a means of getting by. That work led to the film Streetwise, directed and photographed by her husband, Martin Bell; it was nominated for an Academy Award. It was in Seattle, in 1983, that she befriended a 12-year-old, Erin Blackwell ("Tiny"), a child prostitute whom she photographed over the years as Tiny had five children with five different fathers. She first photographed the Damm family of Los Angeles, a husband, wife, and two children, in 1987, after they had been thrown out of a shelter and were living in their car. In one picture, the mother and father sprawl in the front seat of the car as the children peer anxiously out the back window. In 1994, with two more children and the parents seriously into drugs, the family was again Mark's subject, squatting in squalor but still a family, at a rundown ranch in Llano, California. In October 2003 she published Twins, featuring 20 × 24 Polaroid prints of twins.

Mark published 14 books and won many awards, including the second Cornell Capa Award of the International Center of Photography, and her images have been shown worldwide.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

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