Some photographers are defined by a certain image or project, while others are defined by the depth of their careers. Mary Ellen Mark definitely falls in the latter category, with her work covering everything from Fellini film sets to the circus. Her images capture both the poetic and the absurd, often within the same frame, and offer a poignant, uncommon look at humanity. She also worked closely with her husband, director Martin Bell, to produce several documentaries related to her photography, including Streetwise and Tiny, both of which charted her long-term project on the life of Erin Blackwell, a teenager growing up on the streets of Seattle.
Mark died in 2015, leaving behind a deep archive of images. A new book, The Book of Everything, serves as an eloquent retrospective of her long career and should be an inspiration for documentary photographers everywhere. Spanning five decades of work, the book is broken into three volumes that examine, well, everything from well-known long-term projects to more casual snapshots that showcase Mark’s talent for observation. The book includes photos of Mark herself and quotes from many of the people she worked with. We spoke with Bell, who was also the curator of this book, about Mark and her legacy. A version of this interview was previewed in our photo newsletter — if you’re not already a subscriber, sign up for more exclusive photo stories and behind-the-scenes looks.
This book feels deeply personal — can you talk a bit about how it came together?
Mary Ellen and I met in 1980. We were married and worked together for over 30 years. I thought of making this book after Mary Ellen died on May 25,, 2015, of MDS — a blood cancer. I wanted to make a book of everything to give a sense of the extraordinary and passionate life she had lived making these images, and to show the achievement of her life’s work.
Did you always intend for this book to be a type of full retrospective on Mark’s work?
Yes, a retrospective. I decided the book would be chronological, allowing the reader to walk alongside Mary Ellen as she travelled the world making these beautiful and intimate images of other people’s lives — the famous and the “un-famous.”
Were you looking for certain themes as you selected images for this book?
The editorial decisions were bounded by where we thought the strongest images were in the chronological sequence. We were not looking for any specific theme. Mary Ellen shot over 2,000 assignments and projects over the years and had selected 63,110 images on her contact sheets. I added 5,977 images I thought she had missed. Meredith Lue, Mary Ellen’s library manager for twenty years, and Julia Bezgin, Mary Ellen’s studio manager for 12 years, and I further edited down these thousands of frames to 515 plates in this book. One thing I found while looking through the contact sheets was Mary Ellen had, over the years, photographed her hand. The book’s designer, Sonya Dyakova, used these frames as a witness to the passage of time.
Beyond Streetwise, can you talk about your collaborations with Mary Ellen on projects?
From the beginning of our relationship we had talked about working together. In 1983, Streetwise was our first collaboration, followed by American Heart with Jeff Bridges in 1993. Both of these films grew out of an assignment Mary Ellen photographed for Life magazine, Streets of the Lost, written by Cheryl McCall.
In 1989 Mary Ellen photographed in 18 different circuses for the book Indian Circus. From that work we made a film for National Geographic Films with Pinky, a young circus performer in the Great Royal Circus in India.
Whenever Mary Ellen started a new project, we would evaluate the possibility of making an accompanying film. There were several — Twins, a festival in Twinsburg, Ohio (2001), Alexander, a story of an 11-year-old boy with disabilities, in Iceland (2007), Prom (2010). We made a series of films on pediatric care for Novartis (2011–2012) and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell (2015). The Tiny film folds together 32 years of work, starting with Streetwise. Throughout those years we visited Tiny and her ever-expanding family of now 10 children, making photographs and films. Mary Ellen had completed the edit of her book Tiny, Streetwise Revisited, and saw an almost complete edit of the Tiny film in 2015 before she died.
I am now working on a film and a reprint of the Ward 81 book — a story Mary Ellen made in a locked ward for women in the Oregon State Hospital in 1976. The film and the reprint of the book incorporates audio Mary Ellen and Karen Jacobs recorded while they were working for 36 days on the ward. We discovered these daily audio logs recorded on 56 tapes while editing The Book of Everything.
Mark is known for being really immersive with her projects, spending a long time with her subjects — can you talk about this approach?
Mary Ellen first visited Falkland Road in Bombay, India, in 1969. This was an area known for its young sex workers and brothels. This was a strong story, but a tough one to just step inside of with a camera. 20 years later Mary Ellen returned to Falkland Road better able to meet the challenge. For a week she braved the insults and garbage thrown at her until the women realized Mary Ellen was not backing down. Her dogged determination finally paid off when Saroja, a madam, invited Mary Ellen into her brothel; her belief in the story and her persistence was the beginning of relationships that lasted years and a powerful story that became a book, Falkland Road.
When you look at these images, you can clearly see the strong relationship between Mary Ellen and the women and the hijras. It was a gift Mary Ellen had that allowed her to make strong connections with people even when there was no common language. She believed in being direct, never hiding the camera and being there until the story had been told — and then some.
In the mid-’80s the magazines that had supported Mary Ellen throughout the golden age of in-depth photo-driven stories lost ground to TV and the funds for them disappeared. Falkland Road was one of the last magazine-financed in-depth stories Mary Ellen was able to make.
Mary Ellen captured such a huge range of topics over the course of her career, often really difficult stories — what motivated her to keep photographing?
I think Mary Ellen described it in an interview with Swedish National TV: “I didn’t have the happiest home life or childhood, so I think that gave me a feeling of justice and passion for people that don’t have all the breaks. I think it was important to me to be free and wander the world and not have a family. I don’t have kids. I think if you don’t come from a happy home, maybe you don’t want to tie yourself down. I always wanted to be completely free. Even from the time that I was like eight years, seven years old, I remember walking home from grade school thinking, when am I going to get out of here? I’ve got to be free. So the freedom was always a major thought for me, a major plan.”
Was there ever a point where she had to step away or make a different kind of work?
In 1998 Mary Ellen fell in love with the Polaroid 20×24 camera. It was a radical departure from shooting with a Leica 35 mm camera. This massive camera was a beast on wheels. It came with a crew and required a massive amount of lighting. This change brought new challenges and a whole new look to her images.
If there was an Olympic gold medal for shopping, then Mary Ellen would have been a world champion. In every city she visited around the world, she cultivated antique shop owners to find her specific items. Also, fabric merchants, silversmiths, toy makers and on and on. She accumulated a mountain of stuff that was crated and shipped back to her loft in New York. It was her way of unwinding from the often extreme stories she was working on. I swear the floor in the loft tipped under the weight of a massive rocking pig she brought back from India.
What are the most important takeaways that you would want a viewer to have, looking at this book?
When I turn the pages of The Book of Everything, I am in awe at the passion and might of Mary Ellen’s life and her achievement. That she was able, through all of the years, to touch so many people and bring the lives of others to us in images that stay with you forever — it was a very special gift.
Do you have a favorite image of Mary Ellen? What is your favorite project of hers?
That is an unfair question. It’s like asking a parent do you have a favorite child — you would never say even if true. I see Mary Ellen in all her photographs. All her choices for the stories she found are about a personal relationship with the subject of the story. They were invariably stories from the edge — with people you might walk by and not notice. The un-famous, she called them. She brought them to us. From her first images to the last she was true.