Prolific photographer Mary Ellen Mark passed away on May 25 at the age of 75. This profound loss to the photographic community has inspired those who knew her to share their personal stories and memories. This sort of public eulogy carries a different weight when expressed by other photographers. Below, Sean Kernan shares his thoughts on the passing of Mary Ellen Mark.
For years I have talked about Mary Ellen to students in my workshops. I pointed out that her ferocious focus got subjects to pay absolute attention in the making of a photograph, to be fully present as she was, and this created a kind of field that brought viewers to attention too.
I was a few years behind her in college, and the image of her stalking around the campus with her camera and looking completely on purpose perhaps gave me my first hint that photography could be a really serious undertaking, though it took several years before I took up a camera myself. Somewhere in this house there’s a picture she took of me for a campus theater group, but I can’t find it right now.
Later on when we were both teaching in Maine, I remember walking in on a phone conversation she was having with a client. I knew things were tense when she said, “Look, I’m trying to take better pictures for you!” Ferocious focus…whether the client appreciated it or not at that moment.
That same week we were scheduled to give our slideshows to the school on the same night. She came in with 3 trays of slides (240 images), and said to the audience “I’m not going to talk about all these, I’m just going to show them … for about 5 seconds each.” I've sat through presentations, even ones by very good photographers, that were too long, but this was not one of them. And fortunately, I had shown first, as it would have been a tough act to follow. As it was, I managed to hold my own, and it was a great experience for the two of us.
Looking over her work during the past few days, I saw how clearly it was rooted in the great photojournalistic tradition of Black and White and Being There. But there was something else about it that completely transcended that tradition, and that was that whenever she entered a situation, she was there absolutely and completely. Events seemed to turn toward her and clarify in her vision. It’s there in the pictures. Ferocious focus.
She could be generous and supportive toward others, and as an example she wrote an appreciative comment that was printed on the jacket of my book, Among Trees. Not long afterward she said, “Let’s trade prints.” As so often happens with these intentions, we never got around to it. I think I had this lurking feeling that I wanted to offer her a very good photo, my best, and I just hadn’t taken it yet. There was time, I thought.
As it turned out, there was not.
Sean Kernan is an internationally recognized photographer, writer, and teacher.