Mary Ellen Mark photographed the undercurrents of emotion, the split seconds when a subject’s humanity seems to sing to us all. As a documentary and portrait photographer, she traveled worldwide, often to overlooked communities. During Mark’s 50-year career, she photographed people of all ages and social strata, but she was drawn to children as her subjects. “I don’t like to photograph children as children,” Mark once said. “I like to see them as adults, as who they really are. I’m always looking for the side of who they might become.”
Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood, which opens this spring at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, features 30 images of young women in wildly diverse circumstances. Patrons will see a Black girl hurdling over a wall in Central Park in 1967—a blurring effect representing the head-spinning possibilities of play and danger. We see twins in Ohio, who are dour-faced and dressed in matching cowgirl garb. Mark also shot at the Oregon State Hospital, where women were institutionalized because they were considered dangerous to themselves and others. She lived in a ward at the facility and earned the trust of her subjects. One image, “Laurie in the Bathtub, Ward 81” (1976), shows a tween in a deep tub covered with suds. The photo is cropped closely, so we don’t see any institutional trappings. We only see the tween’s face; her wet hair cascades over the back of the porcelain tub. It’s a scene of calm, openness and vulnerability, belying the girl’s designation by the outside world. This is an image that could have been photographed in any suburban home in America, which makes Mark’s work even more telling and powerful.
“Through her camera lens, Mark cut through social and societal barriers to focus on overlooked communities in the United States and around the world,” says NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “Her portraits document individual lives with a familiarity that makes them universally relatable.”
Mark didn’t set out to make grand statements about girlhood; nor did she aim to deconstruct feminine stereotypes. But like the best documentary photographers, she allowed her subjects to roam, dance, sing or simply stare. She captured moments that reveal the richest truths about what it’s like to experience everything and nothing at once. When passing through the exhibit this spring, remember to see these photographs as Mark saw her subjects: with respect, adoration and more than a little wonder. March 3-July 11, 1250 New York Ave. NW, 202.783.5000, nmwa.org
Photography by: Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation.