Mary Ellen Mark, who died this week at the age of 75, was a documentary photographer whose searing work brought attention to prostitutes and homeless families and illuminated the particular rituals of sorority members and teenagers at the prom. Her unflinching, compassionate eye also found an unlikely home on the pages of magazines, and she shot ad campaigns and photographed stories for many fashion and beauty publications, including Allure. “With her photographs, Mary Ellen Mark probed her subjects’ faces and gestures, revealed their vulnerabilities, and celebrated their souls. I was so fortunate to work with her at Allure and honored to publish her rare vision in our magazine,” remembers editor in chief Linda Wells. “I sent her on challenging assignments—to a convention for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, to the home of a woman who was dying from malignant melanoma, and to the suburbs of Pittsburgh for that rite of awkward passage called prom night. She approached each with ferocity and tenderness in equal parts.”
The body of work Mark leaves behind is vast: 18 books (she was working on her nineteenth), two documentary films that she made with her husband, director Martin Bell, and of course the hundreds of black-and-white images she took as part of her reportage on outsiders and subcultures.
Born in 1940, Mark first started taking pictures as a child, and her interest in photography continued to grow while on scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania. (Some of her earliest photographs are of her classmate and friend Candice Bergen, which she took for the school newspaper). After college, Mark received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Turkey, an experience that set her on the documentary path for which she is best known. Her next step—moving to New York and working for Life, Time, and The New York Times—led to projects such as photographing patients in a psychiatric ward in Oregon and prostitutes in Indian brothels, and capturing the lives of homeless children in Seattle, an assignment that resulted in a documentary film called Streetwise and a lasting bond between Mark and some of her subjects.
In the 1990s, Mark trained her lens on the fashion world, shooting ad campaigns for companies like Coach and Eileen Fisher, celebrity portraits, and multiple stories for Allure. On assignment for the magazine, she went inside an eating-disorder clinic and a sorority at the College of William and Mary and photographed the nurses and receptionists who work for plastic surgeons and get procedures for free, proudly displaying the results of their breast augmentations and tummy tucks. Mark treated her editorial work with the same compassion and originality as her documentary projects (she also employed the striking contrast and clarity inherent in black-and-white film, which she overwhelmingly preferred).
Mark was more than just a master of photojournalism. She was a sensitive storyteller and a champion of those she photographed, shedding light on the margins of society and exposing both the strangeness and rueful irony in everyday life. “Mary Ellen’s eye was honest and unpredictable,” says Wells. “She saw people’s flawed, yearning, fragile humanity and found beauty in each one.”
__Discover more influential Allure contributors by clicking below: __
• What Blake Lively Has in Common With Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner
• The Ultimate Passport Photographer: Mario Testino
• Art Watch: Photographer Alexi Lubomirski’s New Book, Decade