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Remembering Mary Ellen Mark Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

26 May 2015

The most important thing about a photograph is its content," Mary Ellen Mark once told an audience of aspiring photographers. She died Monday at the age of 75 in Manhattan after a career making meaningful images.

Born March 20, 1940 in Philadelphia, she earned a bachelor's degree in painting and art history from the University of Pennsylvania before getting her master's degree in photojournalism in 1964. Her graduate studies focused on the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Dorothea Lange.

After graduation she traveled to Turkey on a Fulbright scholarship. Her experience there led to her first book, Passport, published in 1974.

She continued her career in New York, working for Look, Life, Time, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine and other publications in an age when magazines needed photos.

In 1975, the Pennsylvania Gazette assigned her to cover Milos Forman's filming of Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, shot on location at the Oregon State Hospital, a mental institution. On the set, she met the women of Ward 81, the only locked hospital security ward for women in the state. She lived among them, experiencing the conditions there first hand before interviewing and photographing them. The work was exhibited in 1978 and subsequently published as Ward 81.

She signed with Magnum after the exhibition.

She continued her career producing books of her street and documentary photography and making films. Subjects ranged from the prostitutes of Bombay, homeless teens in Seattle, the circuses in India, twins, prom culture and men with their beasts in Mexico and India.

Her last book, to be published by Aperture in the fall, revisits one of the homeless teens she met in 1983. She kept in touch with many of her subjects.

George Eastman House recognized her last year with its Lifetime Achievement in Photography award.

A year ago, we featured her in a Saturday matinee where she spoke at the Smithsonian in 2013. She spoke candidly about her work and the state of the art, which does not include smartphones, she said. Photography is harder than that, she insisted.

Time and again, she demonstrated just what photography could be with her own unforgettable images and uncompromising vision.

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