Essays

Mary Ellen Mark’s Turbulent and Hopeful Narratives

Sam and Ben Will_Mary Ellen Mark for CNN
Mary Ellen Mark, “Samuel and Benjamin Wills” (2015) (photo by Mary Ellen Mark for CNN, © Mary Ellen Mark)

Mary Ellen Mark’s devotion to her subjects and their stories emerges immediately in both Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, a new book published by Aperture of Mark’s photographs, and Picture This: New Orleans, Mary Ellen Mark’s Last Assignment, an exhibit currently on view on Governors Island. As noted by the title, the Governors Island show displays the products of Mark’s final assignment before she died this past May. Her documentary photographs are works of art in their own right and tell a larger story about individuals facing adversity in its myriad forms — poverty, natural disaster, family dysfunction, disability, and so on.

Take “Samuel and Benjamin Wills,” one of the photographs on view at Governors Island. In the photograph, two boys in cowboy hats recline on wooden chairs on a porch. It’s an intriguing image — the subjects wear similar plaid shirts though one boy slouches, crossing his hands against his stomach while the other outstretches his arms toward the viewer, his openness and gaze almost a challenge. There’s a sense of duality and an examination of what it means to be a subject. Both boys are made vulnerable by the camera’s gaze, while their direct stares make you, the viewer, a subject of not one but two intense gazes. The wall text that accompanies this work adds another dimension to the story. It reads:

After struggling to conceive for a decade, Andrea and Jon Wills participated in a medical study at a fertility clinic in New Orleans, which kept the couple’s frozen embryos for in vitro fertilization. Nine days after Hurricane Katrina, an Illinois Department of Natural Resources police officer saved the canister containing the embryos from a flood. Today, twin brothers Sam and Ben are eight years old.

IMG_0277
Martin Bell, “Mary Ellen, Soho, New York” (1987) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The photograph’s meaning extends far beyond what’s evident in the image itself. This work is part of a larger story about a couple’s struggle, a small act of heroism, and the forces working against these boys’ lives that were, ultimately, defeated. The boys’ intense stares may be read as evidence of their fortitude. Despite challenges both biological and meteorological, the boys have grown into their own strong characters.

The Willses’ story is one of the more hopeful ones in the show. On the other end of the spectrum, one of Mark’s subjects, Robert Green, lost both his mother and his daughter in the days following the hurricane. He sits on a lawn with one flag waving behind him and another draped across his shoulders and knees. His shirt reads “I’ll Fly Away.” According to the wall text, Green “sells Katrina-related T-shirts and mugs outside his home.” Green’s face in the photograph is sorrowful, but not defeated, and he looms large within the frame. Despite the tragedies he has suffered, an overwhelming spirit (and, perhaps, a very American capitalist impulse) propels him into the future.

Streetwise_Cover_Render
Cover of ‘Picture This: New Orleans, Mary Ellen Mark’s Last Assignment’ (image courtesy Aperture) (click to enlarge)

Tiny Streetwise: Revisited reflects the narrative component in Mark’s work. It begins with essays by two preeminent novelists: Isabel Allende’s 2015 “Witnessing Tiny” opens the book, preceding John Irving’s 1985 introduction to the original Streetwise. Allende and Irving both write about Mark as a storyteller. Allende writes, “she selects the images that resonate the most with her soul and shares them with us in a book. I can hear her saying: ‘Look, let me tell you a story…” Irving writes, “when I first saw Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs of [the runaways] … I knew they were perfect characters for an important story … Like all good stories, Streetwise is timely.” Irving mentions Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory, contemporaneous and completely at odds with the struggles of Mark’s subjects. As the Bush presidency and disaster relief efforts form an implied background for Mark’s Governors Island show, the Reagan presidency and the politics of the 1980s in the US serve as a backdrop for the images in Tiny Streetwise Revisited. Mark’s photographs, while deeply invested in individual stories, nevertheless reveal critical commentary about the state of the country at different points in its recent history. Her approach recalls Carol Hanisch’s now-famous adage: the personal is political.

Mark’s husband, Martin Bell, directed Streetwise (1984) and Streetwise: Tiny Revisited (2015), both documentaries about the runaways in Mark’s photographs. Dialogue from the films weaves around Mark’s images in the book, giving the characters a voice. Tiny appears in the first image, sharp against a street scene that blurs behind her. Her thin lips press into a straight line as her eyes, with dark circles underneath, confront the viewer. A white cast wraps around her right hand, and she projects a toughness and hardness startling for a 14-year-old so small in stature.

Spread of 'Picture This: New Orleans, Mary Ellen Mark’s Last Assignment' (image courtesy Aperture)
Spread of ‘Picture This: New Orleans, Mary Ellen Mark’s Last Assignment’ (image courtesy Aperture)

Throughout the book, Tiny begins to appear more vulnerable. She hugs a small dog close to her, she lies in her mother’s lap, a tear falls down her face as she looks out a window in juvenile detention, and then she starts bearing children — still young and baby-faced, she lies on a mattress with her engorged stomach uncovered. Over the course of time, Tiny gives birth to 10 children.

In both the book and the Governors Island show, Mark’s empathy and compassion toward her subjects make her work exceptionally evocative and powerful. These works provide an opportunity to re-examine the lives of those around us, the hardships and inner worlds hidden to the superficial eye, which Mark’s lens and spirit allowed her to capture.

Picture This: New Orleans, Mary Ellen Mark’s Last Assignment continues on Governors Island through September 27. Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, published by Aperture, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

comments (0)