One of the photo world’s brightest stars, legendary photographer Mary Ellen Mark passed away this weekend.
I interned in her studio the last year and a half or so, having left just this past April. So I thought now would be the best time to share some of my stories about her, both for me as a way to grieve, and also for future photographers who will never get to meet this wonderfully complicated women.
When I first moved to New York, I earned my first paycheck by assisting Mary Ellen for a parade shoot (meaning I got to follow her around carrying her backpack). I had just moved to the city 3 months prior, and was recommended to her studio by an old classmate. I jumped at the chance of course. It was a dreamlike opportunity, the chance to work in the studio of one of my heroes. I didn’t care that I would be an intern, I would be an intern in the studio of a photo legend!!! It was exactly the kind of opportunity I had come to NYC to pursue.
My first day working in her studio, she came in sometime around 11:00am and went straight to the fridge to pour herself a glass of vodka. I thought to myself “So this Mary Ellen Mark! Shit, I guess she just does whatever she wants!!!” Trying to make myself seem more impressive than I was, I commented on how I had worked with one of the photographers whose picture she had hanging in her studio.
That plan quickly backfired.
Instead of being impressed, she told me the story of how the guy had once run off with her money and her film, and how she had to track him down to make him give her back her pictures. “It was difficult to find people back then…no internet.” She said, “But I found him!”
She taught me that not every famous photographer is good, and not every good photographer becomes famous.
Mary Ellen was easily the most opinionated person I had ever met (or have since). She was highly critical of everyone’s work (even her own), and made no bones about calling people out when she felt like their work was subpar. It didn’t matter how famous or well known the person was, who they worked for, or where they exhibited. She would often say things like “[such and such] used to be such a good photographer, I don’t know what happened!” Or a personal favorite of mine “I hate [such and such]’s work. Too illustrative. It’s not real photography.”
At the same time though, she would champion the work that she did like, regardless of where it came from, or how she felt about them personally. “[Such and such]’s work is beautiful, but he’s such an asshole!” She’d say.
I held off on asking her to look at my work for months because I was so intimidated. After weeks of hearing her complain about the pitfalls of digital photography and over photoshopping pictures, I kept thinking to myself “shit, she’s gonna hate my work!” When I finally did get around to showing her my work, you can imagine my surprise when the only criticism she gave me was “I like it! I think you should make more!!” It was one of proudest moments of my life.
There is still so, so much more left to say! But right now I can barely keep my shit together while I write this as is.
Goodbye Mary Ellen. I hope that wherever you are, you’ll be able to look down upon us and see how truly loved you were in this world. No one will be glad that you are gone, everyone misses you already!!!