Comparsas de dia de muertos en San Agustin, Etla, Oaxaca, Mexico

MARY ELLEN MARK: 1940-2015

In Memory of Mary Ellen Mark


It is with great shock and sadness that we write about the passing of one of photography’s greatest artists, Mary Ellen Mark. A true photographic luminary and an instructor here at PhotoXpeditions, Mark died at the age of 75 earlier this week in New York City. 


A storyteller in the truest sense, her photography focused on those on the periphery, opening our eyes to realities we may otherwise never have seen. She took an uncompromising look at the disparaged and downtrodden, from teenage runaways in Seattle’s backstreets to the women working in the brothels of Mumbai to female patients living in the maximum security section of an Oregon psychiatric institution. Circus workers, Ku Klux Klan members, homeless families; Mark fearlessly documented life on the fringes, capturing the most remarkable aspects of human existence. Her photographs were powerful, intimate and hard-hitting. Full of heartfelt compassion and free from mawkish pity, they conveyed a true sense of the subject and highlighted something all too easy to forget: our commonality as humans. 


Mark first took up photography while studying at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s and soon after took on one of her first documentary projects, shooting heroin addicts on the streets of London. Speaking to the Inquirer in 1988, Mark said, “From the very first moment I took pictures (on the streets of Philadelphia) I loved it. The thrill was the idea of just being on a street, turning a corner and looking for something to see. It was just an amazing feeling… Photography became my obsession.”


Mark rose rapidly to become an outstanding documentary photographer. Her work, which was featured on the pages of Vanity Fair, Vogue, Rolling Stone and the New York Times Magazine to name but a few, inspired generations of photographers. In 2014, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from George Eastman House. Known for her generosity of spirit, Mark didn’t just hide behind the lens; she created real and deep connections with her subjects, often continuing to photograph them over decades. Her compassion extended to animals too: she rescued dogs from the streets and even opened up her studio for an annual Christmas dog party.


Of course, Mark was not just a photographer, but also a teacher. And it was in this capacity that we here at PhotoXpeditions had the honor of working with her for the last seven years. During this time, we have appreciated her fairness, professionalism and loyalty not just as a business associate, but also as a friend. A gifted and inspiring instructor, Mark’s students have spoken fondly about their memories of this icon, praising her warmth, enthusiasm, fairness and generous and fruitful guidance.


We shall deeply miss her humanity and kindness, as well as her talent as a photographer.