“Reality is always extraordinary.” – Mary Ellen Mark
One of the most important photographers of her time, Mary Ellen Mark spent much of her remarkable five-decade-long career capturing those on society’s peripheries with unwavering honesty, acuity, and compassion.
Born in Philadelphia in 1940, she studied painting and art history, followed by an MA in photojournalism at the University of Pennsylvania, and after graduating, traveled to Turkey on a Fulbright Scholarship. She relocated to New York City in the 1960s and spent the ensuing decades depicting countercultural movements and the marginalized for such renowned publications as LIFE, New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair.
Driven by a deep humanism Mark’s deeply absorbing imagery captured perfectly the personalities of those she photographed, emphasizing their humanity, so as to engender empathy and amity within the viewer.
Though lauded for her storytelling, she always saw herself first and foremost, as a street photographer, and possessed the innate perceptivity that underpinned the work of the genre’s most iconic figures. She would always spend time with her subjects before photographing them, treating them with warmth, honesty, and respect, an approach that engendered a profound sense of intimacy.
Over the years she photographed, amongst others, sex workers in Mumbai, patients at an Oregon mental institution, and teenagers living on the streets of Seattle, which culminated in the acclaimed book STREETWISE, and the subsequent Academy Award-nominated film of the same name (produced collaboratively with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, and journalist Cheryl McCall).
During the course of her lifetime, she published twenty books and exhibited extensively across the globe. She received a myriad of awards and accolades, including, an Outstanding Contribution to Photography award from the World Photography Organisation, just over a year before she died, in May 2015.
Comprising 26 works, and focusing specifically on her striking portraiture, Alike My Freinds, a recent exhibition at London’s Huxley Parlour, marked the first UK presentation of her work since her inclusion in the group exhibition Vanity Fair Portraits at The National Portrait Gallery in 2008, and her first solo exhibition in the city for over two decades. It examined Mark’s relationship with her subjects, and more broadly, sought to affirm her immense impact on the fabric of American documentary photography.
The exhibition title refers to the poem Human Family, (which featured in Mark’s 1999 photobook American Odyssey), in which author Maya Angelou encourages us to recognize and celebrate our commonalities alongside our differences: “We are more alike, my friends/ than we are unalike”.
All images © Mary Ellen Mark