Mary Ellen Mark died on Monday. She has always been one of my favorite photographers, and ever since I met her, one of my favorite people.
Her work is inspiring, breathtaking, provocative, sensitive, honest and full of compassion. She was talented. She was fearless, She was tenacious and bold and spoke her mind. Mary Ellen was kind. She cared deeply about people. She had a generous spirit. She searched tirelessly for soulful and effective ways to portray the human condition.
I took her workshop in Oaxaca in1997. I was intimidated by her at first - she was one of my heroes, after all. After our first one-on-one critique, though, I knew she was also going to be my friend and ally.
She pushed me hard. The work I showed her was good, but she wanted more. She dared me to go places I hadn't thought of going before - or, at least, places I didn't think I could go. She managed to give me a heaping dose of courage and confidence and the willingness to try new things and feel okay about failing at them. She taught me that simplicity is elegance.
She told me, after looking through my first couple days worth of contact sheets in Oaxaca to "break the square." Smash it. Use your Hasselblad, but don't let the square own you.
My work leapt forward during those ten days. So did my trust in myself as a photographer. So did my friendship with my teacher.
We stayed in touch after it ended, and then two years later I took my daughter, a high-school senior and aspiring photographer to the workshop. Mary Ellen fell in love with Abbie and ended up offering her a job at her studio when she graduated high school. (Abbie didn't take it.) I loved watching how maternal and nurturing she was toward Abbie. Mary Ellen never had kids of her own, but she had a wonderful way with young people. She thought Abbie's work was amazing and was so excited to surprise me with it at the end of the workshop during the final review. She kept telling me Abbie was doing some great stuff, but made me promise not to look at it until the last day. Mary Ellen was proud of her youngest student.
I visited her a handful of times at her studio in New York over the years, the most recent time being this past October. She was always gracious and welcoming. She looked at my recent work during this past visit and continued to encourage and support it. She gave me and inscribed a copy of her latest book as a birthday gift as I was getting ready to leave and hugged me goodbye.
She said she'd write my letter of recommendation next year for the Guggenheim Fellowship.
I knew she was ill; we talked about it some. She was battling it, doing what she had to do. But she and husband Martin were moving forward with their project in Seattle. The one about Tiny. Mary Ellen worked hard. She was a perfectionist about her work. She wasn't happy until it was terrific.
Her work hangs around my house. We bought three of her photographs back in the day. I'm glad we have them. The picture of Abbie, Mary Ellen and me (above), taken back in 1999, sits on my desk.
She was too young to die, and, of course, she had much more work to do. Terrific work.
There aren't many photographers anymore who have Mary Ellen's work ethic, strong point of view, compassion, dedication, courage and fierceness. She was absolutely true to herself and to the rest of us about who she was and what she meant to accomplish. She was a role model for women in photography. I know she was just as generous and genuine with her other students and friends as she was with me. We all adored her.
I am grateful for her kindness toward me, for our friendship, for all she taught me about my work and about myself, and for the important pictures she made. Mary Ellen was one of a kind. I'm glad I knew her, and I will miss her.