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    Mary Ellen Mark

    Map Academy

    Articles are written collaboratively by the EIA editors. More information on our team, their individual bios, and our approach to writing can be found on our About pages. We also welcome feedback and all articles include a bibliography (see below).

    An acclaimed American photographer best known for documentary photographs of the marginalised, Mary Ellen Mark had a critically acclaimed and illustrious career that took her around the world.

    She was born in Philadelphia in 1940 and studied at the University of Pennsylvania, from where she earned a BA in painting and art history in 1962, and an MA in photojournalism in 1964. Supported by a Fulbright Scholarship, she went on to photograph the streets of Turkey, which led to her first book, Passport (1974). She travelled to England, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain. Upon her return, she moved to New York City, where she spent several years photographing city life and political discord. She worked as a freelance photographer and was later associated with the Magnum Photos from 1977-82. She was a contributing photographer for The New Yorker and was also published in Life, The New York Times, Rolling Stones and Vanity Fair. In addition, she also worked as a unit photographer on movie sets and shot production stills for movies such as Apocalypse Now and True Grit. She was a member of the faculty at the International Center of Photography and some of her best known works were her studies of chronically ill women at the Oregon State Mental Hospital — published in her book Ward 81 (1978) — and runaway teenagers in Seattle.

    A distinct body of Mark’s work was produced in India where she photographed the brothels of Mumbai, circuses and did studies of Mother Teresa. She made her first trip to India in 1968 and kept returning for over ten years. Her project Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay (1981) was borne out of a decade-long encounter with the women who worked in the brothels in the city. In 1978 she gained the trust of women and was finally allowed to photograph their lives, which led to the production of her first book of colour photographs. These photographs are well known for their immaculate lighting and technical mettle, as well as the use of colour saturation, all of which humanely capture the subject and relate their extraordinary working conditions. In 1979, she was commissioned by Life magazine to photograph Mother Teresa and her Missions of Charity in Calcutta. She had to cut this project short due to her illness and resumed it in 1981. Her black and white photos record a sympathetic and sensitive portrayal of her subjects. In 1993 she published a photobook called Indian Circus, a subject she had been photographing since 1969. These photographs were later parodied by Pushpamala N and Clare Arni as examples of the benevolent yet exoticising Western gaze. The photographer Dayanita Singh, on the contrary, cites her as a steering influence in her life and as a mentor since she assisted Mark during her time in India.

    Throughout the course of her life, Mark published seventeen photobooks and exhibited widely. Her work was recognised by various awards and grants such as the Outstanding Contribution Photography Award by the World Photography Organisation (2014), Lucie Award (2003), Cornell Capa Award (2001), Infinity Award (1997) from the International Center of Photography, Erna & Victor Hasselblad Foundation Grant (1997) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1994). Her works form part of permanent collections in institutions such as the J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu), the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of Art (New York City).

    Mark passed away in 2015 due to a longstanding illness.


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