Charles Harbutt: ‘Mary Ellen Mark Wanted Her Work to Count’

2 minute read

Mary Ellen Mark’s long-time friend and colleague, the American photographer and former Magnum Photos president Charles Harbutt talks to TIME about Mark’s dedication to photography.

I first met Mary Ellen when she applied to join Magnum, the international photographers’ coop. At the time we were trying slowly to rebuild after losing three founding members. Mary Ellen and her pictures were a perfect fit: as elegant as Inge Morath and as intrepid a journalist as Eve Arnold. We’ve been friends ever since.

Mary Ellen considered herself a portraitist, but her pictures were not just the famous. She wanted her work to count, to be about important things in our world, things we should pay attention to. Ultimately, I think her prime theme was the situation for women in our tired old world: Ward 81 a woman’s ward in an asylum, girl prostitutes in Bombay, Tiny (a lifelong project), a homeless child/woman, Mother Theresa, high school Proms, even the Indian circuses, all talk about life and death in our world.

Mary Ellen was physically brave. Covering the 1968 convention in Chicago, by day she was in the midst of the police breaking up the protesters then, at night, elegantly dressed on the Convention floor being leered at by the male delegates.

A week or so ago, we were talking and she said she hated the new academic work over-Photoshoped perfection, “life without the zits and pimples” she said. For herself she wanted to run into the wall, maybe with a little ‘shopping, to die working. Sadly she did.

Charles Harbutt is an American photographer and an associate professor at Parsons, the New School for Design.

Tributes Pour in for Photographer Mary Ellen Mark

Tiny in her Halloween costume, Seattle, Washington, 1983
Tiny in her Halloween costume. Seattle, 1983.Mary Ellen Mark
"Rat" and Mike with a gun, Seattle, Washington, 1983
"Rat" and Mike with a gun. Seattle, 1983Mary Ellen Mark
Mona, Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, USA, 1976
Mona, Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital. Salem, Ore., 1976. Mary Ellen Mark
Laurie, Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, USA, 1976
Laurie, Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital. Salem, Ore., 1976. Mary Ellen Mark
Kamla behind Curtains with a Customer, Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978
Kamla behind curtains with a customer. Falkland Road, Bombay, India, 1978.Mary Ellen Mark
Cages. Madam: "Cage girls are the lowest - they only charge two rupees." (Seven rupees equals one dollar.)
Falkland Road “cages”. Bombay, India, 1978. Mary Ellen Mark
Water Exercise Group, St. Petersburg, Florida, USA, 1986
Water exercise group. St. Petersburg, Fla., 1986. Mary Ellen Mark
Federico Fellini on the Set of Satyricon, Rome, Italy, 1969
Federico Fellini on the set of Satyricon. Rome, 1969.Mary Ellen Mark
Christina Ricci in her dressing room, Sleepy Hollow, Shepperton Studios, England, 1999
Christina Ricci in her dressing room for Sleepy Hollow. Shepperton Studios, England, 1999. Mary Ellen Mark
Arjun with His Chimpanzee Mira, Great Royal Circus, Gujarat, India 1989
Arjun with his chimpanzee Mira, Great Royal Circus. Gujarat, India, 1989. Mary Ellen Mark
Acrobat Sleeping. Famous Circus, Calcutta, India 1989
Acrobat sleeping, Famous Circus. Calcutta, India, 1989. Mary Ellen Mark
Ram Prakash Singh with His Elephant Shyama, Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad, India 1990
Ram Prakash Singh with his elephant Shyama, Great Golden Circus. Ahmedabad, India, 1990. Mary Ellen Mark
The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, California, USA 1987
The Damm family in their car. Los Angeles, 1987.Mary Ellen Mark
Chrissy Damm and Adam Johnson, Llano, California, 1994
Chrissy Damm and Adam Johnson. Llano, Calif., 1994.Mary Ellen Mark
Amanda and her cousin Amy, Valdese, North Carolina, USA, 1990
Amanda and her cousin Amy. Valdese, N.C., 1990.Mary Ellen Mark
Mother Teresa at the home for the Dying, Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity, Calcutta, India, 1980
Mother Teresa at the Home for the Dying, Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. Calcutta, India, 1980.Mary Ellen Mark
402J 043 03A, 10/14/04, 3:22 PM, 16G, 5088x7328 (415+335), 100%, Eakins, 1/120 s, R62.1, G45.6, B68.5
Girl jumping over a wall in Central Park. New York, 1967. Mary Ellen Mark
Beautiful Emine posing, Trabzon, Turkey, 1965
Beautiful Emine posing. Trabzon, Turkey, 1965.Mary Ellen Mark
Ned and Fred Mitchell, Twinsburg, Ohio 2001
Ned and Fred Mitchell. Twinsburg, Ohio, 2001. Mary Ellen Mark
Heather and Kelsey Dietrick, Twinsburg, Ohio 2002
Heather and Kelsey Dietrick. Twinsburg, Ohio, 2002. Mary Ellen Mark
Tottenville Prom: 411F-POL-121Manhattan, New York, USA 2006
Tottenville prom. New York, 2006. Mary Ellen Mark
MSKCC Pediatric Prom: 413S-POL-131Manhattan, New York, USA 2009
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) pediatric prom. New York, 2009. Mary Ellen Mark

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