Martin Bell’s Streetwise (1984) endures. It’s a documentary that has spawned countless discussions on homeless children over the years. But, before there was a movie, there were photographs. Streetwise‘s backstory begins with Bell’s wife, the late, great photographer Mary Ellen Mark.
In 1983, Life magazine commissioned Cheryl McCall to write a story about street kids. Mark joined McCall to illustrate this story about the growing problem at the time. They traveled to Seattle for their story. Many considered it the ideal American city. If children live on the street here, they live on the street anywhere. Boy, they were right. They found a pack of homeless kids hanging out on Pike Street in downtown. They were surviving as pimps, prostitutes, thieves, and dope-dealers. “Every city in America has them.” That’s how McCall opens her July 1983 feature, “Streets of the Lost.” Mark’s stark, black-and-white photos, which are currently on view at Aperture Gallery, went with the piece. They show kids packing pistols, smoking cigarettes, shooting heroin, and locked in tender embraces. Her photos are by no means exploitive; they’re direct, and the empathy shines through.
While Mark took photos in Seattle, Bell was in London. Mark told Bell to come to the city, that he had a film here. In August 1983, Bell, Mark, and McCall returned to Seattle to make Streetwise. Partly self-financed and partly backed by McCall’s good friend, country singer Willie Nelson, Streetwise translates the lucid compassion found in Mark’s photographs into moving images. Bell’s camera bares witness to the street kids, giving them voice and movement. And now, 32 years later, he has made a follow-up film, Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell (2016). Both films will screen back-to-back at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) later this week. They should be seen this way. Taken together, the lasting effects of broken homes and broken families become apparent.
“I love to fly,” drones a kid in voiceover. It’s the first voice you hear in Streetwise. “It’s just you’re alone, peace and quiet, nothing around you, but clear blue sky — no one to hassle you, no one to tell you where to go or what to do. The only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the fucking world.” From about 80 feet, this scrawny kid, Rat, jumps off a bridge and plops into a shimmering body of water. It’s a powerful opening captured in slow motion, evoking the hopes and dreams of the kids we are about to meet.
A whole host of kids appear before Bell’s camera. There’s the aforementioned Rat. With a buddy named Jack, they sleep in a decrepit, abandoned hotel. There are the lovebirds, Patti and Munchkin. There’s Lulu, an incredible person. A bit older than the rest of the kids, she is like their guardian angel, protecting them from bums and perverts. A lesbian wearing blue jeans, a sports jacket, and a cap that reads Alcatraz, Lulu has to defend herself too. Men shout at her to act and dress like a “normal” woman. There’s the frail, sensitive boy, Dewayne. And then there’s Erin Blackwell, or Tiny to everyone else because of her petite size.
Tiny cuts a striking, charismatic figure. She dresses, as she presumably put it to Mark, like a French whore, in Mark’s iconic photo of her, taken on Halloween in 1983. In Streetwise, Tiny wears a bright red jacket with blue jeans like James Dean. “She’s 14 going on 21,” says her mother. She thinks Tiny’s prostitution “is just a phase she’s going through right now.” Tiny lives with her mom, but off and on. It’s a broken home. Her mom is a distant alcoholic and her stepfather is an unemployed, abusive loser. No wonder she prefers Pike Street to home.
Thirty-odd years later, Tiny is no longer tiny. In Bell’s latest feature, Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell (2016), she’s a middle-aged woman with 10 children and lives in a Seattle suburb. Over the years, Bell and Mark have kept in touch with Tiny and her family. “I try to photograph Tiny every few years,” Mark says in Mary Ellen Mark: Exposure. “My relationship with her has always been as her ‘personal photographer,’ and it’s one we’re comfortable with.”
Last October, Aperture Foundation published Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, which collects Mark’s photos of Blackwell throughout the years. Bell’s documentary was supposed to supplement the new book. The project, successfully backed on Kickstarter, grew too large though, and became its own thing. Although it uses a similar style as Streetwise — voices heard over footage — Tiny is more straightforward and streamlined. It still has a bonus features feel to it. It’s the B-side to Streetwise.
The title of Bell’s film is a bit of a misnomer; the life of Erin Blackwell consists of the lives of her children. Where Streetwise moves back and forth between a handful of street kids, Tiny moves back and forth between Blackwell’s individual children. Some children get more screen time, others get less. In both cases, the film highlights the children’s tumultuous relationship with their mother. There’s Daylon, the eldest. No longer living with Tiny, he has a child and is a heroin addict. Another son, Rayshon, Tiny sends to juvenile detention for drugs and for his behavior at home. At a late point in the film, she visits Rayshon in juvie. A glass partition separates them as they talk opposite one another using telephones. “I wish I could take Rayshon home every time I leave him there,” Tiny says in voiceover. “We can’t touch him, we can’t hug him, we can’t kiss him — there’s a barrier.”
The moment between Tiny and Rayshon eerily recalls a long, heartbreaking one between Dewayne and his father in Streetwise. He visits his dad in prison, who’s serving a sentence for arson. Dewayne’s dad scolds him, telling him that he’s nothing but a punk. “You’re going to wind up just like I am,” he says. Both scenes in Streetwise and Tiny are devastating. The patterns of destructive behavior crop up again in the offspring. The problems in the home don’t go away over time. There’s a lot of love, but there’s also a lot of damage passed down from parent to child. In Bell’s documentaries and in Mark’s photography, kids get wise too soon and too quick, on the street and in the home.
Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, photographs by Mary Ellen Mark continues at Aperture Gallery (4th Floor, 547 W 27th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 30.
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