The Woman Behind “Streetwise” — Exploring the Work of Mary Ellen Mark

Michelle Dunn Marsh of Photographic Center Northwest describes the enduring legacy of her mentor at this “Streetwise Revisited” event at The Seattle Public Library 

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Mary Ellen Mark. Photo by Joni Kabana Photography

 

By Shan Yonamine, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness

 

When I think of the “Streetwise” documentary, the image that immediately fills my mind is “Tiny in her Halloween costume” – the iconic photo of Erin “Tiny” Blackwell dressed elegantly in black, her stare piercing through the thin veil over her eyes. Many people will recognize this photo of Tiny, but they may not know about the photographer who made this iconic photo.

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Tiny in Her Halloween Costume. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

I had the opportunity to attend an art history talk on Oct. 5 by Michelle Dunn Marsh – the executive director of Photographic Center Northwest and colleague of renowned documentary photographer, Mary Ellen Mark – and I learned more about the photographer behind this classic image.

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Michelle Dunn Marsh. Photo by Sylvia Plachy.

This talk was a part of The Seattle Public Library’s “Streetwise Revisited” project. We are supporting the project through a series of events, including hosting two community-led tours of the “Streetwise Revisited” exhibit:

Beyond “Streetwise”

During the talk, I realized that the photo of Tiny is so powerful that it was easy for me to think about it exclusively in the context of the “Streetwise” film. I was surprised to find out that both the photo and the documentary were born out of a LIFE magazine project in which Mary Ellen Mark was commissioned to photograph street children in Seattle.

I learned that “Streetwise” was just one of the many amazing projects by Mary Ellen and that, in the case of her work, the photographer behind the image was just as powerful as the images themselves.

As I describe what I learned, I hope it’s okay to refer to these two amazing women by their first names.

 

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During her lecture, Michelle Dunn Marsh shared this beautiful photo of herself with her mentor, Mary Ellen Mark.

Setting the Stage for Mary Ellen

Michelle told us that Mary Ellen became interested in photography while she was pursuing her master’s degree in journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where she took her first photography class. According to Michelle, Mary Ellen said of photography that “she didn’t know there was such a tool” and that “she felt like she had a shot at being good at this.” These statements turned out to be indicative of her future success. In 1965 she received a Fulbright scholarship and went to study in Turkey. When she returned to the states in 1966 she began her career as a documentary photographer.

Documentary photography was born in the 1930s when the U.S.  government – through the Works Project Administration (WPA) – commissioned photographers like Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Walker Evans to go out and document social issues that needed to be paid attention to. The primary goal was to raise public awareness of social issues and to institute change.

These photographers set the stage for the visual landscape that Mary Ellen came into, said Michelle, as they introduced the concept of verisimilitude – the appearance of truth. They also sought to not only present facts, but make the viewer feel something. Michelle said that most of us are going to feel something when we look at photos like these before we think about the facts. This was especially true for me when I viewed the photos in the “Streetwise Revisited” exhibit the first time. The images of the Tiny and the children are so striking that they immediately elicit an emotional response. Michelle explained that “we think of being a viewer as passive, but really, seeing is active.”

Decades later, Mary Ellen’s work was the epitome of this goal.

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Saroja, a madam (left), with one of her “girls” in Falkland Road, India. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen’s Work

According to Michelle, Mary Ellen’s style was unconventional and she was drawn to photographing disadvantaged people, “compelling us to beauty and style in people we would have otherwise ignored.” Many of her projects focused exclusively on marginalized people, and she especially loved to photograph women. She was known to completely immerse herself in the community she was photographing, and often put herself in both physically and culturally dangerous situations for the sake of her photos.

“She responded to people with style,” said Michelle, as she exhibited a photo of a girl named Jessie who was part of Mary Ellen’s 1971 series on the impoverished coal country of Harland County, Kentucky.

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In her slides, Michelle shared this Mary Ellen Mark photo of teenager “Jessie,” to demonstrate Mary Ellen’s attraction to people with style.

“She said she became more interested in a single photo that captures a story,” Michelle remembered, rather than relying on a series of photos to do the same thing. And – with all her photos – she was “seeking to define what it meant to be human.”

Because of this commitment, Mary Ellen’s repertoire includes projects such as “Ward 81,” about women at a mental institution at Oregon State Hospital. During this project, Michelle explained that Mary Ellen “felt like she was dealing with women in their purest emotional from. They were completely open with her and she learned that she had to be completely open with them.”

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Michelle’s slides included this quote from Marianne Fulton about the seminal project “Ward 81.”

This realization stuck with Mary Ellen when she traveled to India in 1968 where she visited Falkland Road – the red light district – for the first time. Michelle said that Mary Ellen was fascinated with the women there and wanted to understand how the city functioned; however, her curiosity was not taken well by the locals. Still, she was persistent and eventually returned in 1978 to work on the project “Falkland Road: The Prostitutes of Bombay,” where she was able to photograph a brothel in this district.

Michelle explained that Mary Ellen preferred to take photos in black and white. but “Falkland Road” is one of the only projects she shot in color. The results are truly amazing. (By the way, Mary Ellen and her husband, Martin Bell, named their production company after Falkland Road.)

Mary Ellen’s Muse

Out of all the people Mary Ellen photographed, Erin “Tiny” Blackwell of “Streetwise” was her muse, said Michelle. There was no one who she spent more time with and no one who she photographed more. Michelle said that Mary Ellen had a special bond with Erin that transcended a simple photo project, and she would always make an effort to return and photograph “Tiny” during pivotal moments in her life over the next 30 years.

 

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Mary Ellen’s “muse,” Erin “Tiny Blackwell. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.

Michelle said that Mary Ellen’s other contributions to documentary photography included founding Archive Pictures, which enabled photographers to own their photos; licensing her photos to publications after she made them, rather than shooting on commission; and digitizing her photos as early as 1988, way ahead of her time.

Michelle noted that Mary Ellen and Martin invested their own money to make “Streetwise.” She said that students sometimes ask her how they can get someone to hire them to make documentaries like “Streetwise,” and she tells them, “Those photographers just did it.”

As we know, Mary Ellen Mark and her husband, Martin Bell, would spend a great deal of time with Tiny and other homeless teens while shooting the “Streetwise” documentary. However, it’s important to acknowledge the significance of Mary Ellen’s work before and after “Streetwise” came to be.

What you can do

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Woman Behind “Streetwise” — Exploring the Work of Mary Ellen Mark

  1. Pingback: “The Uncomfortable Conversation” — Using “Streetwise” as a Tool for Advocacy

  2. Pingback: Mothers, Daughters, Conflict — The New “Tiny” Movie Hits Home

  3. Pingback: “Seeing Is Active” — A Collection of Memorable Quotes from “Streetwise Revisited”

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