“Reality is always extraordinary.” — Mary Ellen Mark

It’s her birthday today.

My first job was as a page at a local library. I would go there after school, shelve books for a couple of hours, and then head home. I ended up working there all through high school. Because one of my jobs was to return books to their rightful shelves, I handled many many books that were far too mature for me, and were way beyond my years. One of them was Mary Ellen Mark’s Streetwise, an extraordinary book of photos detailing the lives of kids living on the street in Seattle.


The photo above, of the little girl with the veiled hat, was on the cover, and the image didn’t just strike me, it stopped me dead in my tracks. I didn’t know what I was sensing, I didn’t know what that photo meant. She looked like she was around my age, she could be a classmate, but there was something in her face that seemed entirely … off the map of my own experience, let’s just say that. I didn’t understand. So before I put the book back in its rightful place, I looked through its pages. And the bottom dropped out of my stomach. I fell into a trance. It was horrible what I was seeing, but it was beautiful too. The photographs of those kids were eloquent and stark, their emotions on the outside of their skin, their experience laid bare for the camera.

Text accompanied the photographs. I read it all (in small spurts during my various shifts at the library.) I would go and find the book on the shelf in a slow moment, and read a little bit more. I was a sheltered child and I knew somehow that the book was meant for adults, but I had to keep looking. I got to know all of the kids. Sleeping on dirty mattresses in empty warehouses. Bumming cigarettes from passersby. And Tiny, who really became the “star” of the book (she was the girl on the cover), the child-prostitute. Tiny haunted me. I stared and stared and stared at all of the photographs of her. I wanted to know what it felt like to be her. I felt like I got a glimpse into that just by looking at her face. I didn’t realize it then but I was in the presence of Mark’s considerable genius. Or maybe I did realize it. Maybe I did think to myself, “I have never seen photographs like this!”

I got to know the book by heart. I worked at the library for 5 years, so I had my daily pit-stops in the shelves. I discovered many (literally) life-changing books that way. It’s how I researched James Dean and the Actors Studio. But I will never forget leafing through Streetwise for the first time. The whole thing was completely out of context. I had no idea who Mary Ellen Mark even was. But you can bet I made it my business to learn.

Mark took many photographs that burn – like an afterimage – in the brain.


But it is Tiny that comes to mind when I think of Mark, and Tiny first, because without MMark I would never have known of her existence, or the existence of any of those street kids, vulnerable and tough, open to her camera, to us. I was not alone in being haunted by Tiny. Mark periodically would go back to check on her, see how she was doing (Tiny, Streetwise Revisited). Once you meet Tiny, you never forget her. Mary Ellen Mark revisits “Streetwise” 30 years later.

Mark getting “access” to those street kids to such a degree that they opened themselves up to the camera as totally as they did, tells me everything I need to know about who she was, not just as a photographer, but as a human being. Mark died in 2015, and left a powerful legacy.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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3 Responses to “Reality is always extraordinary.” — Mary Ellen Mark

  1. Martin says:

    One of my favorite photographers. Her work proves that the really essential thing for the craft is nothing more than humanity. There are gear-heads and technical perfectionists, but actually technique becomes second nature very quickly and the camera’s just a machine. And there are people who seem to have magic eyes and always be in the right place just when one thing and another line up in a certain special way, but in the end the magic comes to seem trivial. Really good photographers learn that everything that matters is social. Like Mark, like Diane Arbus. What it really takes is getting inside somebody else’s world — getting a subject to “open” is too smooth a word — to get your camera into a place where strangers are not strangers. It doesn’t take just your eye. It takes everything. It’s damn hard.

    Have you seen her picture taken after a Protestant militant demonstration in Belfast (sorry, can’t find it online) where the wife of one of the demonstrators is holding a baby — smiling, letting Mark take her picture — while behind her is her barrel-chested husband wearing a black ski mask and a militant uniform, and all you can see of his face is a huge happy Dad grin? This guy, a member of the Ulster Defense Alliance who presumably minutes before had been marching and shouting and preparing for violence, wasn’t even out of his uniform and he’d forgotten all that. Or maybe the wife and child were a part of all that, a domesticity and a bloodline he had to protect, and this is the reason for his glow. Anyway, the point is that in spite of the ski mask that guy is hiding nothing, in spite of the uniform he’s an individual, and you see that because of what Mark brought to the protest, aside from the camera.

    • sheila says:

      Mark – thanks for your comment and your thoughts about photography. I love your point about everything that matters is “social.”

      I have seen that Belfast photo!

  2. Bill Wolfe says:

    I was lucky enough to see a major exhibit of her work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art years ago. It was extraordinary.

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