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Photographer Mary Ellen Mark brings overlooked into focus in 'Girlhood' exhibit
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Photographer Mary Ellen Mark brings overlooked into focus in 'Girlhood' exhibit

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Mary Ellen Mark picked up her first camera at age 9, to begin her “life journey through photography.”

In a 50-year career, the photojournalist would travel the world to photograph people of all ages and from all walks of life.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts focuses on one aspect of her life’s work in “Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood,” an exhibition with more than 20 images of young girls from overlooked communities in the United States, India, Turkey, Mexico and the former Soviet Union.

Mark was most interested in children, saying that she didn’t photograph “children as children” but “as adults, as who they really are. I’m always looking for the side of who they might become.”

In one of Mark’s earliest works, “Emine Dressed Up for Republic Day, Trabzon, Turkey” (1965), a young girl faces the camera, one hand placed on her hip, the other by her pouting mouth. Unbuckled dirt-stained shoes and hair loosening from its bow are clues that Emine is impatient to grow up.

Mark does not construct a particular narrative of girlhood. Her subjects vary from singing and dancing, putting on makeup or smoking. There are scenes of witnessing death or awaiting birth.

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Works from some of Mark’s best-known series are included, such as “Ursula Phillips and Gregg Whitlock Jr., Malcolm X Shabazz Prom” (2006) from “Prom” or “Tashara and Tanesha Reese, Twins Days Festival, Twinsburg, Ohio” (1998) from her work “Twins.”

While her portraits are documents universally relatable, they are not necessarily easy to view. Observing everyday life provides a range of possible themes, not always beautiful or sentimental. These works are not meant to merely please the eye. Mark does what the camera is unique to do, as part of the art process itself, and that is to capture the moment in time of a subject and an action.

The key to viewing her work is not to come in judgment or expectation, but to pause and consider that this is “a moment on the precipice, poised for whatever comes next” in the subject’s life. “Girl Jumping over a Wall, Central Park, New York City” (1967) captures such a moment.

As a documentary photographer, Mark aimed to tell stories through imagery. While some photos seem casual and others posed, this is not so. As a photojournalist, Mark spent time living with her subjects to observe everyday life. Her subject at that specific moment is not just an image but “the essence of the experience.”One most disturbing image shows a subject in serene poise: “Laurie in the Bathtub, Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon” (1976). Mark lived at the hospital where Oregon institutionalized women because they were considered dangerous to themselves or others. This cropped image of a young woman in a deep tub, with only her head and wet hair visible above the sudsy water, gives no clue that she is institutionalized because she is deemed a danger to the outside world.

Mark’s 1983 “Streetwise” project with Life magazine documents runaway street children in Seattle. She would revisit people and places as they grew and changed over many years. Over 30 years, she would record Erin Blackwell, whom she called “Tiny” and her complex young life of addiction, recovery and marriage, along with its accompanying transitions, hardships and joys.

Some will find the images of runaways disturbing and sad, but what Mark is presenting humanity as it is, emotions in how they live. Her photographs of girls are meant to reveal “not only vulnerability and defiance, but also each girl’s sense of the world in her life ahead.” In “J’Lisa Looks Through the Blinds, Streetwise Revisited” (2014), Tiny’s daughter peers through broken window blinds, her expression of anticipation and apprehension of what girlhood might hold.

The exhibit is as much about the photojournalist as it is about her subjects. Mark would for her career span use traditional equipment, polaroid and gelatin prints, She never moved to digital.

Mark has been compared to a poet exploring words. My favorite work is “Batman and Little Barbies at the Toys “R” Us Holiday Parade, New York” (2002). It is a photograph anyone could have at that moment for a personal memento, but it was taken by one of the world’s greatest photographers for all to see.

Sheil Wickouski contributes

to The Free Lance-Star.

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