Urgent Museum Notice

Now Open—Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood

Blog Category:  NMWA Exhibitions
A black and white photograph of three light skinned young girls wearing princess dresses and crowns standing in front of a person wearing a full Batman costume. The three girls stand in defiant poses with their hands on their hips and serious expressions. The background is a city setting.

One of the most prolific documentary and portrait photographers of her generation, Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015) is known for her compassionate and candid photographs of subjects living on the fringes of mainstream society. Now on view through July 11,  Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood explores the artist’s depictions of girls and young women from around the world. Whether cloaked in youthful awe or on the cusp of a more mature adolescence, her subjects convey the delights, frustrations, struggles, and complexities of girlhood.

The exhibition is made possible by a generous donation from members of the Photography Buyers Syndicate of more than 160 photographs by Mark. It showcases works that span the artist’s 50-year career—from her earliest work in Turkey in the 1960s to Polaroid photographs taken at U.S. high school proms in the early 2000s.

The experience of girlhood is a recurring subject in the history of art, particularly in photography. Mark’s photographs are set apart by her highly personal approach to connecting with her subjects. Her portraits capture individual lives with a familiarity that makes them universally relatable. As a documentary photographer, Mark aimed to tell stories in her images. Her photographs of girls reveal not only their vulnerability and defiance, but also each girl’s sense of the world before her.

In one of Mark’s earliest and most striking pictures, Emine Dressed Up for Republic Day, Trabzon, Turkey (1965), her young subject’s pose and facial expression suggest an impatience to grow up, but her unbuckled, dirt-stained shoes and hair loosening from its bow reveal markers of a rambunctious childhood.

Strange & Uncanny

Mark also documented reality’s strange and ironic moments. In Child in a Stroller with a Chimp, India (1974), Mark captures a clothed chimp pushing a young girl in a stroller. The child’s quizzical expression creates a scene that is both amusing and wondrous.

In 1998, Mark visited the Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, where she photographed dozens of sets of twins, among them Tashara and Tanesha Reese. Her portrait of the girls, posed in identical cowgirl outfits with matching hobby horses, highlights their physical similarities. But Mark paid careful attention to the subtle differences in their facial expressions, capturing their individuality as well.

On the Precipice

Mark did not aim to construct a particular narrative of girlhood, nor did she intend to deconstruct common stereotypes. Rather, she observed her subjects as they were and captured who they were becoming. Mark photographed moments of carefree childhood, as in Batman and Little Barbies at the Toys “R” Us Holiday Parade, New York (2002). She also witnessed her subjects navigate the complex experience of growing up—exploring identity and experiencing intimacy and love. Each photograph contains a moment on the precipice, poised for whatever comes next.

Related Posts

  • Behind the Scenes: RECLAMATION

    Posted: Apr 28, 2021 in NMWA Exhibitions
    Melani N. Douglass, NMWA director of public programs, details her process curating the online exhibition Reclamation, which examines the power of food as creative medium and connector.
    A black-and-white photograph of two women and two girls, all with medium-dark skin tones, together at a dining table set for dinner. A lamp hangs over the table and a mirror hangs on a wall behind them. The woman on the left is standing, while the other three sit at the table.
    Blog Category:  NMWA Exhibitions
  • Reclamation: Q&A with Jenny Dorsey

    Posted: Apr 19, 2021 in Artist Spotlight
    Chef, writer, and artist Jenny Dorsey talks with us about her process and work, part of NMWA's new online exhibition RECLAMATION: Recipes, Remedies, and Rituals.
    A light-skinned woman of Asian descent stands behind a large, wooden kitchen table that is full of two white dishes of finely plated food and various small, plastic to-go dishes., alongside a small bronze French Press coffee maker. The woman smiles and wears a grey tshirt under a black and white vertical striped apron.
    Blog Category:  Artist Spotlight
  • Forming a More Perfect Union

    Posted: Apr 14, 2021 in Advocacy
    Web designer Sue Anna Joe created the central magnolia motif on Mississippi’s new state flag, which recently replaced the original flag’s Confederate imagery. We asked Joe to consider Sonya Clark’s own Confederate battle flag and truce flag works.
    A photograph of two figures standing side by side, unraveling the threads of an American Confederate battle flag. The figure on the left has light skin, and the figure on the right has darker skin. They face away from the camera, with their hands in the center of the image pulling loose the threads.
    Blog Category:  Advocacy