A few years ago, I had the extreme privilege of interviewing Mary Ellen Mark in her Soho loft for my film, “Everybody Street.” She had always been such an inspiration to me as a photographer, and as a woman. When I visited her in her studio, I saw her walls were lined with documentary photographs that she had mostly traded from her peers—the best of the best.
Mary Ellen told me about her life and career. She seemed beyond fearless. In her early 20s she was shooting on Fellini’s set of “Satyricon.” She told me stories of shooting the brothels in India and getting pelted by garbage in the streets. She spent six weeks living in an insane asylum for “Ward 81.” She showed me files and files of story ideas that she had pitched over the years. She was not someone who sat back and let things come her way, she aggressively pursued most of her opportunities. She made it happen for herself.
Mary Ellen was invested in many of her documentary subjects, she went deep, spent years—sometimes decades—photographing “the truth.” She told me, “your subject can tell you what the picture is. Makes it for you. So I’m not a strong believer in heavy duty concepts when I do portraits of people. I sort of like it to come from the people.” And it did come from the people. Their souls came pouring out to her.
I asked her if she felt being a woman helped or hurt her in her pursuits. She replied, “I’m a fighter. I think it’s harder to be a woman than a man. I’ll definitely admit that, but I think that there’s also an advantage to being a female photographer, if you’re a street photographer, because I can walk down the street and knock on a door and someone will let me in. I’m less threatening than a man.”
And people did let her in. She spent her life sharing those unseen intimate moments for us, sharing the truths.
At the end of our interview, I asked Mary Ellen to speak on her work’s defining thread, “I’m a humanist. I like to photograph people and the human condition.”
Great documentary photographs channel human emotion. Mary Ellen Mark was a medium of sorts, her pictures emoted undeniable tangible power. We have lost a great artist, photographer and humanist. She will be truly missed.