A celebrated American photographer best known for her in-depth documentary work, Mary Ellen Mark produced some of the most delicately shaded studies of vulnerability ever set on film. For over four decades, she traveled extensively to make compelling photographs that reflect a high degree of humanism.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts will soon open a new exhibition of works by this celebrated documentary and portrait photographer. Titled Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood, the exhibition brings together around 30 works from her 5-decade-long career, depicting girls and young women living in a range of circumstances around the globe.
Known for her compassionate and candid photographs, Mary Ellen Mark focused on people who were away from mainstream society, living on its often troubled fringes. Over the years, she traveled extensively, documenting a range of communities in the United States, India, Mexico, the former Soviet Union and other countries. Particularly interested in photographing children, she always saw them as adults. "I’m always looking for the side of who they might become," she explained.
As NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling explains, Mark cut through social and societal barriers to give voice to the invisible and left-behind.
Her portraits document individual lives with a familiarity that makes them universally relatable.
Drawn from a donation of more than 160 photographs from the Photography Buyers Syndicate that includes images from Mark’s earliest work in Turkey in the 1960s to photographs taken on Polaroid film in the early 2000s, the exhibition brings together shots from her most acclaimed series such as Prom, Streetwise, and Twins.
Most of the works on view come from larger bodies of work that were not specifically focused on girls. Rarely intervening in the poses or the surrounding of her subjects, Mark captures them dancing, singing, exploring, staring, witnessing death, experiencing intimacy and love, smoking or being made up.
The photographer often formed strong relationships with her subjects, revisiting them throughout the years. Such is the case with Erin “Tiny” Blackwell - a fourteen-year-old prostitute whom she met while documenting the lives of the street kids of Seattle. Returning again and again for the next 30 years and delving ever deeper into Tiny’s evolving life, Mark captured her in all her complexity.
The exhibition Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood will be on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. from March 3 until July 11, 2021. The exhibition is organized by the museum and generously supported by the members of the NMWA.
Featured images: Mary Ellen Mark - Girl Jumping over a Wall, Central Park, New York City, 1967 (printed later). Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in.; NMWA, Gift of Jill and Jeffrey Stern; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Laurie in the Bathtub, Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976 (printed later). Gelatin silver print, 20 x 24 in.; NMWA, Gift of Susan and Earl Cohen; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation. All images courtesy the National Museum of Women in Arts.