ART INDEX: Mary Ellen Mark
Article written by Bianca Mafodda on June 10, 2022
«Photograph the world as it is. Nothing's more interesting than reality.»
- Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark (Philadelphia, March 20, 1940 – New York, May 25, 2015) started taking pictures in 1963. After that, she turned photography into her life, addressing the social matters of her time and becoming one of the most recognized documentary photographers of the second half of the 20th century.
During an interview with a Swedish tv channel, she said that she did not have an easy childhood, which gave her a feeling of empathy and relatability with people who also lived through unhappy situations. All that mattered to her was to be free, to travel the world and not to have a family. Freedom has always been her goal. It is what she has searched for throughout her whole life. She found that spirit of freedom and liberation in her photography.
Travelling the world with her camera, she ended up on the movie sets of the most incredible movie directors of the time such as Federico Fellini, François Truffault, Luis Buñuel, and Francis Ford Coppola. She found herself in the female isolation ward of the mental asylum Ward 81, in Salem, Oregon, on the Falkland Road in India, taking pictures of the young sex workers that she met on the street, on Pike Street with the runaway teens of Seattle, in the New York City parade and in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Her photography is a visual diary of her life experiences as a human, compassionate person, and non-judgmental documentarian of the lives she has captured through her lens. Cinema has been very important for her art. Other than having worked on movie sets, narrative elements from those movies influenced her photographs. Moreover, she has also made a lot of movies together with Martin Bell, her husband, who recently edited a volume on Mary’s life and art, entitled Mary Ellen Mark: The Book of Everything (Gottinga, 2020). The couple met on the movie set of the film Ragtime by Miloš Forman. Something clicked right away, and they knew that they wanted to do movies together, so they did. Together they directed the movies The Amazing Plastic Lady, about the life of a young Indian girl living in a circus, Alexander, about the life of a disabled young man on an Island, and Twins and Prom, both shot in the US.
In a recent interview given by Martin Bell to the Italian magazine “Art & Dossier,” Mary’s husband and co-director described Mary as someone who had a quiet yet intense presence. He noted her presence was impossible to resist and that it really showed in her work. From the first pictures she took to her last ones, the direct and powerful connection with Mary is always visible in the eyes of all the people she has photographed. This was the case no matter if the subject of her snap was rich or poor, famous or not. They all have that same look in their eyes, as if they were being seen for the first time.
Amanda and her cousin Amy, Valdese, North Carolina, 1990
(© 1963-2022 Mary Ellen Mark)
Mary’s oldest auction result registered is a photograph sold in 1993. Her art is so powerful and meaningful that she has become established as one of the greatest and most prolific photographers of her time. There has been a spike in sales in the 2010s, as you can see in the picture below.
Mary Ellen Mark’s turnover from 2000 to 2020 (©Artprice.com)
Libera di non giudicare, by Francesca Orsi, “Art & Dossier”, n. 391, October 2021