Mary Ellen Mark is one of the world’s greatest and most influential documentary photographers. Next month, 65 years after she took her first photograph, she will be the recipient of the Sony World Photography “Outstanding Contribution to Photography” 2014 Award. What is it that earns a photographer such an esteemed accolade? Let's take a brief look at her work to find out.
I can’t describe the exact sensibility of Mary Ellen Mark’s work which is often the case, I find, for those photographers whose work I most admire, but when you see it, you know it. She manages to capture a soul in her work that both reflects her eye and the life of her subject. While technically expert, and with a wide range of cameras on hand over the years, her work is a stark reminder – particularly for those of us who photograph people – that it is far from access to the latest and greatest gear that will make the world sit up and take note of your photographs.
Mary Ellen has had a rich and wonderful editorial career. Her work has ended up in an eye-watering myriad of different publications, including Paris Match, LIFE, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone., the sorts of publications that most of us would pull our eye teeth to get into just one of them, let alone so many world leading journals.
While her photojournalism images graced the covers of these periodicals countless times, she is best known (in my humble opinion) for her documentary work on capturing people at the fringes of society. Her subjects, those affected by a wide range of social issues such as homelessness, drug addiction, runaway children, prostitution and mental illness, are extensive.
Never do I feel she exploits the trials and tribulations of her often troubled subjects. Rather, she is side by side with them on their journeys. She injects a subtlety, style and grace into her work that leaves you compelled to continue the photographic journey she takes you on, to learn more about the subjects being photographed, the issues going on with the lives of the people she is photographing, and the way in which she takes you on the journey.
She explained her interest in the people that are in often troubled social environments in an interview for Salon.com:
“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.”
Interestingly, she first explored this form of social documentary work while working on something completely different – behind the scenes movie stills as an on-set stills photographer for various directors. While photographing on set at the Oregon State Mental Hospital for “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”, Mary Ellen got the opportunity to meet and photograph the women of Ward 81 – the maximum security wing of the hospital. It’s an interesting reminder of the different paths and avenues that photography can take us, and the twists and turns in the road as we begin to explore what we really feel compelled to capture through our own photographic careers and journey.
One of my favorite interviews of Mary Ellen was broadcast quite recently on The Candid Frame podcast. If you have 45mins to spare, it is a fascinating interview with her and well worth the time. You can also watch a compelling episode of Mark Seliger’s “Capture” where he speak to Mary Ellen about her work, also well worth watching.
The World Photography Organization does not give out “Outstanding Achievement to Photography ” awards lightly. It is reserved for those photographers that the majority of us will probably always aspire to be but who will continue to inspire and influence generations of photographers to come. Mary Ellen Mark will collect her award at the Sony World Photography Awards gala ceremony in London on Wednesday 30 April 2014 and a special retrospective of her work will be shown at Somerset House from 1st through to the 18th May as part of the World Photography Awards Exhibition. A further selection of images will be published in the 2014 edition of the Sony World Photography Awards winners' book.
Congratulations Mary Ellen, thank you for the inspiration and the outstanding achievements to date, and as always, we look forward to the photographs you will create tomorrow.
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Mark and her studio for permission to use the images in this article