Mary Ellen Mark’s distinct depictions of girlhood reflect the diverse realities of that word

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Photographs from several series spanning the late photographer’s career feature in Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC

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Mary Allen Mark (1940-2015) photographed children as “little people,” looking for “who they might become”. And now over 30 subjects — children and young adults — are on view at the newly opened Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC. 

The show comprises images from several bodies of work not explicitly centred on ‘girlhood’. And the subjects hail from around the world, varying in age and culture. A number are performers in an Indian circus. Others participate in the surrealist Twins Festival in the appropriately named American city of Twinsburg, Ohio. And some are pictured engaging in Mexican funeral preparations. Young adulthood in America is a recurring theme: The Coney Island boardwalk, a South Bronx shelter, North Dakota government housing, and Seattle streets. Curator Hannah Shambroom groups the subjects to underline two undercurrents: highlighting universal and relatable elements across divides and bringing visibility to those on the margins.

Jeanette and Victor. Brooklyn, New York. 2020 © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation.

Mark began photographing with a Box Brownie camera when she was nine-year-old. Later, she studied painting and art history and received a degree in photojournalism. While on a Fulbright Fellowship in Turkey, she travelled across Europe, producing work for Passport (1974), the first of the 20 books Mark would publish throughout her life. After moving to New York, she began photographing demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the women’s liberation movement, and social issues such as homelessness, drug addiction, and prostitution.  

“Mark captured a moment but also a person,” says Shambroom. An image that exemplifies this approach depicts four children picking flowers at a school for blind children in Ukraine. A girl in an elegant school uniform, sitting on the grass and looking up, presumably at Mark, elevates the idyllic black-and-white scene. The girl’s eyes—one wandering, the other cloudy white—and three dead flowers in her lap catch the viewer between them. 

Emine Dressed Up for Republic Day. Trabzon, Turkey. 2020 © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation.

Mark was not always successful in challenging stereotypes or developing novel ways of representation. An image depicting a woman applying lipstick to the lips of a girl sitting on a bed in a dimly-lit room is a jarring example of this. There is synchronicity between the unbuttoned buttons on the girl’s dress and her slightly open mouth. Mark’s caption states that she made the photograph in a brothel, where villagers brought the girl after her husband left her. The image is part of Falkland Road (1981), a book about sex workers in Bombay, India. Although Mark invested deeply in making the series, the work leaves one uncomfortable at the sight of girls and women performing their sexuality before her lens. 

In 1975, Mark visited the hospital in which Milos Forman’s film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next (1975) was being shot, on assignment for The Pennsylvania Gazette. The living conditions inside Women’s Ward 81 greatly affected Mark, and she returned a year later, living inside the facility for 36 days. During this time, she made a body of work about the institutionalised patients. The exhibition includes one of these photographs: a girl, Laurie, submerged in a bathtub [featured image]. Her hair rests on the bathtub’s rim, and her eyes gaze out at Mark. The photograph excludes the institutional surroundings, transforming the frame into a scene of deceptive domesticity. 

J’Lisa Looks Through the Blinds, Streetwise Revisited 2020 © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation.

The exhibition also includes one photograph, which Mark took the year before her death. In J’Lisa Looks Through the Blinds (2014), a child gazes through broken window blinds. The subject is the daughter of Erin Blackwell, better known as, Tiny. Mark first photographed Tiny in 1983 while working on her most influential body of work, Streetwise. When Mark met Tiny, she was a teen sex worker. By the end of Mark’s life, Tiny was a mother of 10 children and a recovered drug addict. Streetwise also became a film in 1984, documenting runaway children living on the streets of Seattle.

Mark’s close relationship with Tiny is emblematic of her approach to capturing the joys and struggles of her subjects. The intimate access she gained to their lives was premised on trust and longevity. In an interview with American Photo in 1998, she explained, “Your subjects will trust you only if you’re confident about what you’re doing. They can sense that immediately.”

Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood is open at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, through July 11, 2021.

Sumeja Tulic

Sumeja Tulic is a Libyan-born Bosnian writer and photographer. She writes about art, conflict, and everything in between.