Remembering Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015)

Mary Ellen Mark, 1960,  Philadlephia
Mary Ellen Mark, 1960, Philadlephia

I was deeply saddened to hear the news yesterday about the passing of Mary Ellen Mark at 75 years of age. Her deeply empathic and insightful photographs of people from all walks of life and many parts of the world will serve as a lasting legacy. As one of the greats within the social humanist tradition, she was in every way a deeply humane and eternally caring person and photographer. She died of a rare blood condition called Myelodysplastic syndrome, which I only know anything about because my wife’s mother, Betty Thompson, had the same condition. Fortunately she was able to live quite well until she died. I hope the same was true for Mary Ellen.

I met Mary Ellen in 1960 when I was teaching at the Annenberg School of Communications in Philadelphia. She was a student at the time, and already a wonderful artist. When I heard the news of her passing yesterday my studio manager went hunting for some contact sheets from a photo shoot I did with her after we became friends. We chose several to scan and share and add to the many photos and remembrances that are sure to follow in the coming days. The two portraits bring out both the light-hearted and serious sides of the 20 year old Mary Ellen. Her vibrant energy was a sign of what was to come in her photography.

She will be sorely missed and greatly appreciated for her ability to give a voice, through her photographs, to the humanity and dignity of those caught up in the web of society’s injustices as well as it’s joys. The beauty of her photographs is a mirror of her own heart. We are all grateful.

Mary Ellen Mark 2, 1960, Philadelphia
Mary Ellen Mark 2, 1960, Philadelphia

15 comments

  1. Morgan Fisher

    There are some nude photographs that have nothing to do with sex or even art – but with simple honesty, friendship, openness. These are in that very rare category. Thank you for sharing them, you have inspired me once again…

    • Harold Feinstein

      Thanks Morgan: I appreciate your comment! It makes me recall the numerous times when I was asked to take photos for friends who were launching a business (new restaurant, dance company, etc.) I often asked them to take off their clothes, because the human body is so beautiful and expressive. Got some of my most beautiful photographs that way. Here’s another one I love! http://www.haroldfeinstein.com/portfolio/item/nudes-portraits/.

  2. art gunther

    Fine portraiture of a remarkable photog.

  3. Musawwir Spiegel

    Harold – Thanks for posting this. She was truly a great photographer. I had wondered whether you had known her. The photos you shot of her were beautiful. Musawwir

  4. Allan MacGregor

    I, too, was sad to learn about the passing of this great humanist eye! I was similarly saddened by a comment Mary Ellen Mark made in an article a few years ago regarding the fact that the publications she had been featured in no longer seemed interested in her kind of photography. A penetrating, yet loving observation of the human condition will be lost if that is true. I certainly agree with Morgan Fisher’s comments on your photos. Thanks, Harold, for teaching us to look through the eyes of appreciation, as Judith rightly calls them. Allan

  5. Blu Wirisi

    Beautiful photographs of MAM. She was a special person. I have always admired her talent and her carrying for others. A beautiful human being.

  6. Tammy

    She was an artist in more ways than one, and it shows in her life’s work.

  7. Jason Gold

    I first met Mary Ellen Mark in a wonderful book, shared with Annie Liebowitz.
    Thru the years, I read as much as possible, getting the books from the wonderful Bensusan Library in Johannesburg. A goal was set as I embarked on my career, in photography, of Concerned Photojournalism and Documentary.
    Fast forward i moved to Canada, became a true citizen.
    The internet became a working tool, one could study the greats.
    Mary was one of these..
    Mary Ellen Mark, we all mourn your passing, we rejoice in the memories that You left.
    We are lucky to have met, maybe not in actual person..Thank You. MHDSRIP.

  8. Elaine Mayes

    I met Mary Ellen in 1968 in New York. I had just begun my first photo/film teaching job at The University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Jerry Liebling (my senior and colleague) and I had driven to New York for the Christmas holidays. Ralph Gibson, my classmate and friend introduced me to Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen was pretty, small and had generous amounts of positive energy. I saw Mary Elllen many times after that, mostly only casually at parties and photo events we both attended, mostly in SOHO where we both lived. She always greeted me with warmth. She, Julia Scully and I had lunch on occasion over the years, mostly during the 1990s. When Mary Ellen moved her studio to Greene Street I visited her there on several occasions, and each time we looked at images, talked about photography and our work. On one such occasion Mary Ellen showed me a personal effort she had become focused on, keeping records of photos that others had done that looked like her work or the work of people she respected. This project was most interesting to me because it showed the beginnings of what I felt was happening to photography: Many thousands of photographs taken by many people that look like the photographs of other photographers, This look alike kind of work I believed was caused by the explosion of photography and what has become the demise of personal photography, photography that bares the signature of the way an individual photographer sees and experiences the world. Because of this new everyone is a photographer phenomenon and the digital shift of the medium, the photographic enterprise has changed dramatically. Not only are there many thousands of photographs and photographers today, the situation has escalated to a huge competitive circumstance. Now its all moving forward and getting ahead, and what I experienced as the older world of community and caring has been replaced by self promotion and networking. Good photographers go by unnoticed unless they push and shove, and the former community of support has been replaced by chest beating and self as foremost. Mary Ellen had collected proof of photographers stealing from other photographers, stealing that happened because of publication and visibility in the media. It is sad and too bad that no one cares about the loss of personal vision, and no one thanks the people who influenced, taught or helped them out. No ones says, “I know this looks like a Mary Ellen Mark photograph, and I am thankful for her influence. She inspired me and gave me ideas. I want to credit her for my image. ” I will miss Mary Ellen, her incredible positive energy and her extremely thoughtful relationship to the medium.

    • Harold Feinstein

      Dear Elaine: Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with Mary Ellen, and your passion for the current state of photography. I agree that what seemed like a supportive community is now quite changed. Sometimes I look at what is being exhibited or sold at auction houses for hundreds of thousands of $$ (or millions), and I just scratch my head. But perhaps the proliferation of imagery has created a proliferation in ways of seeing too. I don’t know. I think the research into “look-alike” imagery is interesting. I haven’t really considered that myself, but your thoughts about it have planted that seed. So far as I’m concerned, the only reason to photograph, or to paint, or to make music is for the love of it. That way, they’ll receive the “payoff” from the doing of it and not the anticipation of how much $$ they will make! Anyway, good thoughts and thanks for sharing them! Harold

  9. Brett Rogers

    Dear Harold,
    Thank you so much for sharing your memories of Mary Ellen with us. I’m very sorry that I never managed to meet Mary Ellen personally, because I would sorely have liked to have done so, which means the memories of people such as yourself, who knew her well, are of immense interest to some of us.

    I’ve adored Mary Ellen’s images ever since my interest in photography intensified years back. The first time I ever saw her work (in “Exposure”, probably) I was smitten, probably for much the same reasons everyone else familiar with it, would be. She achieved superb image quality by every criteria, notable in itself, however having initially grabbed my attention, the more I learned about this remarkable woman, the more my respect for her grew, not only for her wonderful photographs, but because of her work ethic, unrelenting committment to quality, and her integrity (both as a person and as a documentary photographer).

    I was not aware that Mary Ellen had been suffering from the rare condition you mentioned, or indeed, that she had been unwell at all (and I suspect that relatively few people would have been, from what I do know of her). Being my favourite living photographer, I’d been actively following her activities and projects for some time via her website, facebook etc. and I was always keen to know what she was doing next, such as the Streetwise follow-up she and Martin were working on. When I was up late one night earlier this week (I’m in Australia) and a link popped up in my facebook feed, despite her not-so-tender age of 75, I was stunned to read of her passing. In my mind, I simply wasn’t prepared to deal with the idea of Mary Ellen not photographing our world and its people for years to come. It just seemed way too soon, for her to leave us. It still does.

    For anybody contemplating a career in what has become the increasingly precarious pursuit of photojournalism in 2015, I simply cannot imagine a finer role model than Mary Ellen Mark. She was one of very few working photographers that I don’t believe I have ever read a single bad word about, from anybody who knew her: as far as I can tell, she was universally respected, and loved, by those lucky enough to know her well.

    I don’t know whether your images of her above have been previously published, (I’ve certainly never seen them before), but, I want to thank you for showing us a glimpse of this wonderful human person at the other end of her career, full of beauty and life. I’d look forward to the chance to see any other images from your time together that turn up, Harold. I know I will never forget Mary Ellen, or her incredible catalogue of photographs, but I would welcome any opportunity to be reminded of them, and of her.
    Sending my sincere condolences, and best wishes, to you and yours,
    Brett Rogers
    Hobart, Tasmania

    • Harold Feinstein

      Thanks Brett. She was indeed a rare human being whose contribution to photojournalism will be sorely missed. I had not seen her much in the latter years of her life and only knew of her illness from her studio manager who let me know last year when I had been in touch. Her archives will be a valuable source of guidance to those pursuing the field for generations to come. I am still looking through my contacts to see if there are other photos. The truth is I never printed these, but did remember doing them and am so glad I was able to find them!

      Wishing you the best. I know Mary Ellen is in a peaceful and radiant place!

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