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Mary Ellen Mark - The Book Of Everything 7
Amanda and her cousin Amy. Valdese, North Carolina, 1990From The Book of Everything, Mary Ellen Mark, published by Steidl

Mary Ellen Mark was the photographer who saw it all

‘The Book Of Everything’ is a comprehensive collection of Mark’s unflinching documentary of life and people as they really are – we speak to Martin Bell, the book’s editor and Mark’s husband and collaborator

Mary Ellen Mark is a photographer who on first glance can appear to be almost invisible, a stealthy observer who achieves a scarcely believable closeness to her subjects. The rawness of the images sometimes makes it hard to fathom that a person is there behind the camera. But while you don’t see Mark, her empathy for people and their troubles radiates in every photo – she seems as much their confidant as someone capturing their reality.

The intimacy you see and feel in her work is no accident. The Pennsylvania-born documentary photographer immersed herself in people’s lives, obsessed with capturing stories from the fringes of society – whether that’s sex workers on the streets of Mumbai, street kids in Seattle, or women confined to a psychiatric ward in Oregon.

“I desperately need to do something that matters, and that I care about,” she said in 1976. “It can touch a lot of people, affect them, change them. That’s why I’m a photographer, to document their lives, and to do things that are meaningful. It’s so important to me.”

Mark died in 2015 aged 75, leaving behind an incredible legacy of documentary photography and magazine assignments, having shot for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and LIFE, alongside work shooting production stills for major Hollywood films, including One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Apocalypse Now.

Martin Bell and Mark were married for 30 years, up until her death. Not only lovers, they worked together too, most notably on Streetwise, a 1984 film directed by Bell based on Mark’s 1983 assignment for LIFE magazine called “Streets of the Lost”, an editorial that captured the lives of nine alienated teenagers in Seattle, kids living on the edge of existence. The film is an unflinching look at lost youth, faded innocence, and life in the gutter, mostly focussing on Tiny, a 14-year-old sex worker who Bell still keeps in touch with to this day. 

After Mark’s death, Bell began compiling her life’s work into one place, going through thousands of contact sheets, poring over the images she’d left behind, either published in magazines or her 20 books, or those that hadn’t seen the light of day. The result is The Book Of Everything – published by Steidl and edited by Bell – a sprawling three-volume collection of Mark’s work ordered chronologically, that tells the story of Mark’s life as well as the many outsiders whose lives she managed to occupy so effortlessly.

We spoke with Bell about Mark’s passion for people, for photography, and putting together The Book Of Everything.

Mary Ellen’s photography is organised chronologically across three volumes. When you were putting together the work did you notice her work and her point of view change? 
Martin Bell: In editing this book, I looked at over two million frames on Mary Ellen’s contact sheets. I found that her way of making a photograph was constant throughout her life. You can see it in the first and the last frames. There is a directness, an intimate understanding between Mary Ellen and the subject of the image. When I look at any of Mary Ellen’s images, I see her – she is present. 

She was a roaming free spirit who spoke of her desire to see the whole of the world. Was there anywhere that she didn’t get to photograph that she was desperate to see? 
Martin Bell: Within the first few pages of The Book of Everything you realise that a vast number of frequent flyer miles were accumulated over the many years making these images. The only continent Mary Ellen did not travel to was Antarctica, but I’m not sure she was that ‘desperate’ to travel there – but she would have enjoyed shopping for the stylish cold weather gear if assigned. 

What was it about Mary Ellen’s personality that allowed her to get so close to people, to take such personal photos? I’m thinking particularly of her work with sex workers in Mumbai. 
Martin Bell: It was a special gift she had that allowed her to make an immediate strong connection with people even when there was no common language. In Bombay (the former name for Mumbai) on Falkland Road, the street where the young sex workers lived and worked, it was more challenging. For several days she was pelted with all manner of stuff until the women realised she was not leaving. Seeing her persistence under fire, a madam, Saroja, invited Mary Ellen into her brothel and from that day on she became a part of the women’s daily life and the story unfolded. There is an image on page 246 of volume 1 which clearly shows the relationship Mary Ellen was able to forge with these young women. It is a close up of an older male customer on top of a young girl. The girl is looking directly at Mary Ellen as if to say, ‘I am here, this is my life, you understand.’

“The girl is looking directly at Mary Ellen as if to say, ‘I am here, this is my life, you understand’” – Martin Bell

I know that you kept in touch with Tiny from Streetwise over the years, how is she now? Can you give us an update on her and her kids? 

Martin Bell: After LIFE magazine published the ‘Streets of the Lost’ story in 1983, and then making the Streetwise film, we continued to visit Tiny and document her life. She is a survivor and would be the first to admit she is lucky to be alive – against all of the odds, she navigated the brutality of the street, and held her family together. There are now 10 children with 22 years separating Daylon, born in 1986 to J’Lisa born in 2008. Daylon and LaShawndrea, the first two, have struggled with the chaos that street-life brought to their lives. The third born, Keanna, is married and has started a successful business with her husband in downtown Seattle. They have three children. The youngest children are still at home with Tiny. J’Lisa is now the same age Tiny was when Mary Ellen met her in 1983.

Did Mary Ellen keep in touch with many of her subjects? There seems such a closeness between her and the women she photographed at the psychiatric ward in Oregon – did she continue to speak with them over the years? 
Martin Bell: Mary Ellen kept in touch with many of the people she photographed. While we were working on The Book of Everything, I spoke on the phone with Emine Kolay who now lives in Gölcük, Turkey. Mary Ellen photographed her in 1965, she was 10 years old at the time and living in Trabzon. She now has two children and is still married to the man she ran away with as a teenager. Emine told me that Mary Ellen spoke with her on the phone, while she was in Turkey giving a lecture at the Burso Foto Festival in 2012.  Emine said Mary Ellen told her then that ‘your photograph was the beginning of my photography, because I won something with your image, and I decided to stay in photography as a job – I took it seriously after you.’
Mary Ellen described meeting Jeanette Alejandro at the Puerto Rican Day parade in 1978. ‘I was walking through Central Park taking pictures. I saw Jeanette Alejandro and her boyfriend, Victor Orellanes, sitting on a bench with lots of balloons. What was intriguing about Jeanette was that she was the youngest-looking pregnant teenager I had ever seen. In truth, she was 15 and Victor was 14, but they looked even younger. I asked her for her phone number and called her about a week later.’

They kept in touch over the years. In 2018, I asked Jeanette what she remembered most of Mary Ellen and she said: ‘When Mary Ellen talked to you, she always made you feel like you’re important too, no matter what situation you were in, that you were important. She could sell us on anything. She fit in with us so well. She went with us to a Puerto Rican party. She knew how to come into our world, and she made us feel important no matter what was going on in our lives. I never met anybody who went to India, and all those exotic places. I remember she brought us elephants. They were from India. It was like a thick woven canvas, and I remember it had little seashells and it had stitches and little mirrors. I knew that the world was bigger on the outside of Brooklyn because of Mary Ellen.’

“She knew how to come into our world, and she made us feel important no matter what was going on in our lives” – Jeanette Alejandro

The Ward 81 book project was produced in 1976 at the Oregon State Hospital. Mary Ellen and sociologist-slash-writer Karen Jacobs spent 36 days living on ward 81, a locked psychiatric ward for women. What I did not know until we started the research for The Book of Everything, was, after their working day, Mary Ellen and Karen had made a daily audio log recorded on 56 audio tapes. Some of the tapes were with the patients. These audio recordings were my link back in time to two of the women who survived. We visited with Carol and Laurie. Laurie is the cover image on the Ward 81 book. Laurie guided us through the Ward 81 book pages introducing us to the patients and recounting the time Mary Ellen and Karen had spent working on the ward.  
Mary Ellen did not stay in touch with the women on ward 81, probably because of the transient nature of these women’s lives. Unexpectedly Mary Ellen and Karen did leave a touchstone in the audio recordings, allowing me to travel back and reconnect with Laurie and Carol after 44 years. 

Mary Ellen was such an incredible documentarian of the whole world, but she helped her viewers understand fringe America. She died in 2015, a year before Trump’s election. How do you think she’d perceive the country now, and what do you think she’d want to photograph? 
Martin Bell: In these extraordinary times, Mary Ellen would have been out on the street finding stories. She would have found a very stylish mask.  

Is there a single image of Mary Ellen’s that means something to you as it truly captures who she was as a person and a photographer? 
Martin Bell: That is an impossible question – which child? I see Mary Ellen in all of the photographs. 

Mary Ellen didn’t want children but was invigorated by the rawness of teenagers. What advice do you think she’d have had for a teenager picking up a camera for the first time? 
Martin Bell: Mary Ellen was an inspirational teacher. She encouraged anyone with a passion for taking photographs, but cautioned how hard it is to make a living. She had lived through the golden age of magazine-assigned photography, but even then, it was a tough game. She would have said, ‘Don’t deny the passion, as later in life you would be haunted with regret.’ Mary Ellen’s life changed when she first picked up a camera and realised it allowed her to enter people’s lives and travel the world. It allowed her to live an independent life – and what a life she had. 

You were partners and collaborators for 30 years. How did you separate work and life? Were the dynamics different at home and out on the street shooting? 

Martin Bell: There was no separation of work and life - our life together was our work.

The Book Of Everything – published by Steidl – is available now