"In a portrait, you always leave part of yourself behind," feted photographer Mary Ellen Mark once said – a statement that perfectly embodies her emotionally invested approach to photojournalism. Mark, who died last year at the age of 75, believed that a photographer's work should express a point of view, and as a result made it her mission to form one by taking the time to get to know her subject. For her 1975 series Ward 81, a study of the patients in Oregon State hospital, for example, she spent 36 days in the institution, living alongside the inmates; while for her 1981 book, Falkland Road – a visual documentation of the brothel district of Bombay – she set up camp in the squalid area for three months, combatting extreme hostility, and even physical attack, before her perseverance finally paid off. "Some of the women thought I was crazy, but a few were surprised by my interest in and acceptance of them," she recalled of the experience. "And slowly, very slowly, I began to make friends."
Regardless of the private situations of her subjects, the candidness that Mark's portraiture achieves is deeply and uniquely stirring: a testament to the trust and respect Mark both bestowed upon and earned from those she captured. Now, a new show at New York's Howard Greenberg Gallery, titled Attitude: Portraits by Mary Ellen Mark, 1964-2015, offers a welcome opportunity to revisit Mark's remarkable oeuvre, with around 40 of her most enduring works on display, spanning the entire duration of her career.
Visitors have the chance to view select images from Mark's iconic series Twins (2013) and Prom (2011) – striking sets of large-format Polaroids capturing siblings at the Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, and prom-goers across the USA, respectively – as well as from Indian Circus (1993) and the aforementioned Falkland Road. Other highlights include Mark's compelling portrait of Tiny, a 14-year-old prostitute from Seattle, who stares listlessly out of the frame, face covered by the net of her surprisingly smart straw hat, as she blows a bubblegum bubble. Mark met Tiny while shooting Streetwise – a 1984 documentary directed by her husband Martin Bell, with an accompanying photo study by Mark, documenting homeless and troubled youth in the US city. So captivated was she by the young girl that she and Bell returned to Seattle regularly to visit and photograph her as she grew up, and eventually became mother to ten children (Mark was present at the birth of her first). Images from this 30-year project Tiny: Streetwise Revisited are also on display.
As well as her work in photojournalism, Mark also established herself as a successful celebrity portraitist, snapping stars on the sets of over 100 movies, including Fellini's Satyricon and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Her wonderful photograph of a young Sean Penn, pictured in his backstage dressing room for the Broadway play Slab Boys, Manhattan in 1983, also features in the exhibition, showing the actor completely at ease, feet on his dressing table, eyes lost in thought. As is the case with so many of Mark's portraits, we are privy to something sublimely personal, a moment of intense honesty, that strikes a resonant chord. "I just think it’s important to be direct and honest with people about why you’re photographing them and what you’re doing," she famously said. "After all, you are taking some of their soul."
Attitude: Portraits by Mary Ellen Mark, 1964-2015 is at Howard Greenberg Gallery New York until June 18, 2016.