Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood

An icon in modern photography, Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015) documented people around the world who might otherwise be unknown or forgotten. From street children in Seattle to circus performers in India, Mark captured the lives and stories of individuals with empathy, humor, and candor. The exhibition includes photographs from some of the artist’s best-known series that depict girls and young women, reflecting Mark’s wondrous and uncanny vision of girlhood.

Mary Ellen Mark, Girl Jumping over a Wall, Central Park, New York City, 1967 (printed later); Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Jill and Jeffrey Stern; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

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.

A black-and-white photograph of a dark-skinned young girl sitting sideways in a chair on a cracked street. She has braids and wears a striped dress and one sneaker. Her arms rest atop the back of the chair, and her head rests sideways on top of her arms as she looks skywards.

Mary Ellen Mark, Lakeisha, South Dallas, 1988 (printed later); Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Robert and Kathi Steinke; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

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 might become. Mark witnessed her subjects navigate the complex and sometimes fraught experience of growing up, and she also photographed moments of carefree adolescence, as in Singing on the Beach, Wildwood, New Jersey (1991).

A black and white photograph of people singing and dancing outdoors. In the foreground on the left of the frame, two young girls wearing matching black bikinis pose with open mouths and their hands on their right cheeks. On the right of the frame, a young boy stands with his eyes closed and mouth open, clasping his hands at his chest.

Mary Ellen Mark, Singing on the Beach, Wildwood, New Jersey, 1991 (printed later); Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Chris Hughes; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

A black and white photograph of three young girls wearing matching princess dresses and crowns standing in front of a tall figure dressed in a Batman costume. All four stand in the middle of the street in a city setting, surrounded by buildings. The girls are posed with their hands on their hips and serious expressions.

Mary Ellen Mark, Batman and Little Barbies at the Toys “R” Us Holiday Parade, New York, 2002 (printed later); Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Susan and Earl Cohen; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Mark took an early interest in photography, first picking up a camera at age nine. In 1962, Mark received a BFA in painting and art history from the University of Pennsylvania; she went on to earn a master’s degree in photojournalism from the institution’s Annenberg School for Communication. In 1965, the artist won a Fulbright Scholarship to photograph in Turkey for one year, an honor that she described as “the beginning of my life’s photographic journey.”

A black and white photograph of women and children standing in a wooden doorway. A figure whose head and face are obscured holds a baby, who is crying. Next to her stands a woman who leans against the doorframe, smiling. In the lower part of the frame are two young girls. The one in the foreground smiles broadly, her dark hair pulled back from her face.

Mary Ellen Mark, Women and Children in a Doorway, Mexico, 1965; Vintage gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Jill and Jeffrey Stern; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

While Mark built a reputation as a photojournalist, contributing photo essays and portraits to publications such as Life, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times Magazine, her work has also been widely exhibited in galleries and museums. She published more than twenty books of photographs and received numerous awards and grants for her photography and journalism.

A black and white photograph of women and children preparing a grave in the dirt outdoors. An adolescent girl stands to the side observing. She wears a light colored, patterned dress, and her dark hair is pulled back into a low ponytail. To her right, a woman with dark hair and a dark shawl leans down over a plant. Five other figures stand near her.

Mary Ellen Mark, Girls Preparing a Grave, Mexico, 1965; Vintage gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Shaun Lucas; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

In 1965, Mark was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to photograph in Turkey. She took this portrait in the courtyard of Emine’s home. Mark gave minimal direction, encouraging the girl to pose herself. With a hand on her hip, Emine mimics an older teen, but her unbuckled, dirt-stained shoes and hair loosening from its bow reveal markers of childhood. Calling this “the first strong photograph I made,” Mark captured a young girl’s eagerness to grow up.

A black and white photograph of a young girl posing with her hip out and hand on her chin. She stares directly into the camera while wearing a ruffled dress, hair bow, and buckled shoes. Behind her is a stone wall that a younger child leans against.

Mary Ellen Mark, Emine Dressed Up for Republic Day, Trabzon, Turkey, 1965 (printed later); Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Frieder K. Hofmann; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

A black and white photograph of a young girl wearing a dress and coat jumping over a brick wall. Three other figures lean over the wall in the upper right corner of the composition. The jumping girl is the only figure who is in focus.

Mary Ellen Mark, Girl Jumping over a Wall, Central Park, New York City, 1967 (printed later); Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Jill and Jeffrey Stern; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

In 1983, Mark traveled to Seattle to document runaway and abandoned youths living on the streets for Life magazine. That assignment became the basis for Streetwise, a photographic series and film documenting the challenges, complexities, and occasional joys in the lives of these children and teenagers. Many of the youths Mark photographed in Seattle fled violent homes or were forced to the streets by poverty. In this image, two girls rest against a graffitied wall on Pike Street, a popular gathering place for the city’s homeless youth.

A black and white photograph of two girls sitting outside, leaning against a dark wall. The girl on the left sits upright, staring out of the frame. She wears dark pants and a light colored t-shirt with the word “alpha” printed on it. The girl to the right sits with her legs folded to her chest, and leans her head and arm on her knees. She wears a light t-shirt and dark shorts, and holds a small bouquet of flowers.

Mary Ellen Mark, Runaway Girls on Pike Street, Seattle, Washington, 1983; Vintage gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Robert and Kathi Steinke; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

Mark often took personal interest in those she met and photographed, and in some instances she formed lasting connections with her subjects. Mark’s involvement with Erin Blackwell (nicknamed “Tiny”) began in 1983 while filming the Streetwise (1984) documentary, when the girl was just thirteen. Over the next thirty-two years, Mark documented Tiny’s transition from teen runaway to sex worker, to drug addict, to mother of ten. In this image, Tiny’s daughter J’Lisa peers out of a window, her expression brimming with anticipation and skepticism.

A black and white photograph of a young girl peering through slatted blinds to look out a window. Her gaze goes to the right of the frame. To her left, and on the other side of the window, a small white dog stands on a tiled floor.

Mary Ellen Mark, J’Lisa Looks Through the Blinds, Streetwise Revisited, 2014; Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Frieder K. Hofmann; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

In 1968, during her first visit to India, Mark encountered the Indian circus. Her photographs of the events hint at strange and wondrous sights—including this fantastically costumed trio—but focus on the performers in their down time. Mark said, “I wanted to document the lives of the people when they weren’t performing. . . . If I had photographed from the audience’s point of view, I would have just been a spectator.”

A black-and-white photograph of a medium-skinned girl in a frilly acrobat costume standing next to two children in identical, full-body peacock costumes. One peacock-costumed child holds a bundle of long peacock feathers, and they all stand on sand with a row of tents behind them.

Mary Ellen Mark, Child Acrobat with Two Children in Peacock Costumes, Great Royal Circus, Himmatnagar, India, 1989 (printed later); Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Jill and Jeffrey Stern; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

A black and white photograph of a toddler seated in a stroller being pushed by a clothed chimpanzee. The child has short, dark, curly hair and wears a light colored dress. Her facial expression appears apprehensive. The chimp wears white pants and a white button up shirt.

Mary Ellen Mark, Child in a Stroller with a Chimp, India, 1974; Vintage gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Jean Rossall; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Mark approached her subjects with sensitivity and compassion. While photographing on the set of the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), shot at the Oregon State Hospital, Mark encountered young women living in a high-security ward for patients considered dangerous to themselves or others. Interested in getting to know the residents, Mark gained temporary permission to live in an adjacent ward. Laurie’s open expression in this portrait reveals little of the institutional environment, as Mark strove to capture the women’s inner selves beyond their diagnoses.

A black-and-white photograph of a light-skinned girl submerged in a white bathtub. Only her head is visible above the soap suds, and her dark hair hangs over the side of the tub. The floor beneath the tub is tiled.

Mary Ellen Mark, Laurie in the Bathtub, Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976 (printed later); Gelatin silver print, 20 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Susan and Earl Cohen; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

This portrait of Jeanette and her boyfriend, Victor, captures the tenderness of young love. Mark met fifteen-year-old Jeanette when she was five months pregnant. Several times a week for the remainder of the teen’s pregnancy, Mark visited and photographed the couple and their families in Brooklyn, eventually documenting the birth of their daughter. “Photographing Jeanette was a great learning experience for me,” Mark said. “I learned that you can capture more intimate moments by blending into the background.”

A black and white photograph of two teenagers lying next to each other on a striped blanket. The girl is pregnant and wears a light colored tank top and dark pants. She has short, dark, straight hair and lies on her back. The boy is shirtless and wears light colored pants. He has short, dark, curly hair. He lies on his side next to the girl with his hand on her leg. Their faces are nearly touching as they look into each other’s eyes.

Mary Ellen Mark, Jeanette and Victor, Brooklyn, New York, 1979 (printed later); Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Shaun Lucas; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

A black and white photograph of a young girl and older woman sitting side by side in a wheeled cart. The young girl has dark hair, which is pulled back, and she is wrapped in a light colored blanket. The older woman is wrapped entirely in a light colored blanket from her ankles to her head. Her hair and body are not visible. They both stare directly into the camera with serious expressions.

Mary Ellen Mark, Girl and Old Woman Sitting in a Cart, India, 1974; Vintage gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Saul and Maria Roque-Lopes; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Mark spent three months photographing the brothels that line Falkland Road in Mumbai, India. Though she typically worked in black and white, for this project she used color film. The vibrant saturation of the jewel-toned walls, curtains, and clothing heightens the intensity of this somber scene in which a teenage sex worker is made up for a client. Mark portrayed each of her subjects with dignity and empathy. Her photographs called international attention to the injustices faced by these overlooked young women.

A color photograph of a teenage girl sitting down next to another woman, who applies lipstick to the girl’s lips. The teenage girl has dark skin and dark hair, which is styled into braided pigtails. She wears a bright red dress with a white collar. One button in the middle of her dress is open, revealing a small amount of her abdomen. She stares directly into the camera with a blank expression.

Mary Ellen Mark, Falkland Road, Mumbai, India, 1978; Dye transfer print, 20 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Jean Rossall; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

From 2006 to 2009, Mark traveled the United States documenting high school proms. A rite of passage for American teens, the prom symbolizes an impending transition to adulthood. Mark’s subjects exhibit a range of reactions; some pose seriously with their dates, while others affect more playful mannerisms. Mark used a six-foot-high, 240-pound Polaroid 20 x 24 Land Camera for these portraits. As with the smaller, more familiar Polaroid instant cameras, each shot produces just one unique print with no negative.

A black and white photograph of a teenage couple in formal clothing standing side by side, holding hands. The boy has light skin and short, dark, curly hair. He wears a dark colored suit with a white boutonniere. He turns his head to look at the girl, who also has light skin and short, dark, straight hair and wears a light colored, ankle length dress.

Mary Ellen Mark, Lucas Nathan and Grace Bush-Vineberg, Palisades Charter High School Prom, Los Angeles, California, 2008; Polaroid, 28 1/4 x 22 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Robert and Kathi Steinke; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

A black and white photograph of a teenage couple in formal clothing. A teen girl with dark skin and straight, dark hair stands slightly in front of a teen boy with dark skin and shortly cropped dark hair. She wears a long, light colored lace dress with a slit on the leg, and a jeweled chain wrapped around her thigh. He wears a white suit with a dark tie.

Mary Ellen Mark, Ursula Phillips and Gregg Whitlock Jr., Malcolm X Shabazz Prom, 2006; Polaroid, 28 1/4 x 22 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Frieder K. Hofmann; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

Mark photographed attendees of the annual Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, in 1998 and 2002. In this portrait of Idesha and Mikayla Preston, Mark sought to capture each girl’s individual character, despite their physical similarities. Idesha’s intense, direct stare dominates this image, while Mikayla, the younger twin, stands more passively by her side. The large-format Polaroid print allows viewers to consider each girl in turn, contemplating their expressions and dynamic as sisters.

A black-and-white photograph of young twin girls standing next to each other. Both girls have dark skin and dark hair with white beads tied into it. They both wear striped tank tops and dark shorts. They stand straight with their arms by their sides, both staring into the camera with serious expressions.

Mary Ellen Mark, Idesha and Mikayla Preston, 8 Years Old, Idesha Older by 10 Minutes, Twinsburg, Ohio, 2002; Polaroid, 28 ¼ x 22 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Jill and Jeffrey Stern; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation

A black-and-white photograph of two dark-skinned young twins sitting in folding chairs against a woodsy background, facing the camera with their bodies angled outward in opposite directions. They wear matching cowgirl outfits, complete with hats, boots, and hobby horses.

Mary Ellen Mark, Tashara and Tanesha Reese, Twins Days Festival, Twinsburg, Ohio, 1998 (printed later); Gelatin silver print, 20 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Robert and Kathi Steinke; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

This exhibition is made possible by a donation from the Photography Buyers Syndicate of more than 160 photographs by Mary Ellen Mark from 1965 to 2014, spanning nearly the entire length of the artist’s 50-year career. Their gift includes selections from some of Mark’s best-known bodies of work, including her Fulbright Scholarship in Turkey, her exploration of the Indian circus, and celebrity portraits, enabling the museum to amass a core collection of the artist’s work.

Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood, presented in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is organized by the museum and generously supported by the members of NMWA.

A black-and-white photograph of three light-skinned schoolgirls in dark, long-sleeved, matching uniforms. The girl on the right stares off, hands clasped by her cheek; the girl in the middle stares at the viewer with her head on her hands; and the girl on the left is laughing.

Mary Ellen Mark, Classroom, Kiev, Ukraine, 1987 (printed later); Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Robert and Kathi Steinke; © Mary Ellen Mark/The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation