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Art HERstory: Mary Ellen Mark

The human condition is a collection of events and situations that compose the human existence. Some say life is short, but the reality is that life is the longest thing we’ll ever do. Unfortunately, during the duration of out lives a few of the occurrences we’ll encounter will be unpleasant. Mary Ellen Mark (1940-) is a socially conscious photojournalist who has focused primarily on the downtrodden. The vast majority of her images illustrate the harsh reality of the human existence. The final products are beautiful and pure. Real emotion. Real life. Straight, no chaser.

At the tender age of nine, Mary pressed a shutter button for the first time. Her Kodak Brownie was her best friend and stayed with her until college. She attended the University of Pennsylvania and graduated with a BFA in painting and art history. She continued her education at Annenberg School for Communication where she earned a master’s in photojournalism in 1964. A year later she was awarded a Fullbright Scholarship to photograph in Turkey.

“I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.”

Much of Mary’s work is in black and white, which matches the tone of the lives of the people in the pictured. She chooses to focus on common social issues like homelessness, drug addiction, loneliness and prostitution. In her opinion, everyone has a story to tell no matter their social status, mental state, culture or sexual orientation. During the course of her career she has traveled the world and photographed people plagued by these issues. Mary makes it clear: we’re all connected.

“I’d rather pull up things from another culture that are universal, that we can all relate to….There are prostitutes all over the world. I try to show their way of life…”

Although her preferred setting for photography has been life, Mary also did commercial work. She became a unit photographer on movie sets and was the eye behind the image for films including Alice’s Restaurant, Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Apocalypse Now and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She’s also been featured in print publications such as Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

Mary has continued to photograph since that Box Brownie lit an eternal fire within for creating. Her work still wins awards and gains recognition to this day. She’s even gotten kudos from Oprah! It’s no surprise that these images have earned rave reviews since they were developed. The emotion evoked by these images is enough to soften any heart.

Image Layout: Phaymiss

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