“Streetwise”: Remembering Mary Ellen Mark’s heartbreaking and heartwarming photography

By on May 26, 2015

We heard about the passing today of photographer Mary Ellen Mark, at age 75, and immediately remembered her husband Martin Bell’s excellent documentary Streetwise, about runaway kids on the streets of Seattle, which Bell made with his wife Mary Ellen back in 1984.

STREETWISE 2
Mary Ellen Mark, 1973. Photo by Ralph Gibson

Streetwise told the stories of a group of teenagers who were all much too young to be living on the streets, but just as the title explains, they had become wise beyond their years, i.e. “streetwise.” Their stories are at times heartwarming and often heartbreaking — in particular, we loved the story of the two kids who had fallen in love: Rat, the dumpster diver, and Erin Blackwell, known as Tiny, who was a teenage prostitute.

Streetwise was based around Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs, which had accompanied a July 1983 article in LIFE magazine, entitled “Streets of the Lost,” written by Cheryl McCall, who became the film’s producer (Willie Nelson was also an executive producer). The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1985.

STREETWISE 3

Mark was a profoundly talented photographer, and her career was filled with amazing work. A photography book of Mark’s photos was published under the same name in 1988. The photographs are captioned with quotations from the film, and the transcript of Bell’s film appears at the end of the book, with only minor differences.

A new edition of the book will be published in conjunction with a new film, Streetwise: Tiny Revisited, which began as a short 23-minute film made in the mid-2000s by Mark and her husband, called Erin, which focused on Tiny, who had cleaned up and settled down with a husband and children, but Mark and Bell have been working on expanding the film to include what happened to several of the other kids, including Rat (who is married with children and grandchildren now). It is currently estimated for release in late 2015. Read about the project here.

STREETWISE 4

Here’s an excerpt from her New York Times obituary:

Ms. Mark was a versatile photographer who could make insightful portraits, photographing celebrities as well as doing reportage. Among her assignments were several extended stories for Fortune magazine while Michele McNally was the photo editor.

“She was incredibly determined and incredibly professional,” said Ms. McNally, now the director of photography at The New York Times. “She wanted to get the job done. While she was best known for very long-term projects, she was able to gain people’s trust in a short amount of time.”

Ms. McNally added, “She could randomly approach people in the street and get them to cooperate with her, and then in minutes she’d be able to capture the essence of a person or a group of people in a very short period of time, so she never wore out her welcome.”

At the same time, Ms. Mark’s ability to connect quickly did not mean she accepted anything but her own best effort. “She wanted to get the job done, but get the job done as best as it ever could be,” Ms. McNally said. “She was not happy if she did not get it, and then you’d know it.”

She published 18 books, including Ward 81 (Simon & Schuster, 1979), Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey (Aperture, 1999), Twins (Aperture, 2003) and Prom (Getty, 2012).

She also made films with her husband, Martin Bell, including Streetwise, a 1984 documentary they produced about runaway children on the streets of Seattle. The film was nominated for an Academy Award. They also made a film, Prom, that Lens wrote about in 2012.

STREETWISE 1

About Bryan

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide and a dozen other websites and zines, most of them long gone. He’s also worked for over twenty years at reissue record labels, and penned scads of liner notes -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He is now somewhat reclusive and bides his time quietly in his dusty Miracle Mile hermitage in Los Angeles, CA.