Mary Ellen Mark (1941-2015) put her hands on photography in the 1960s, depicting streets scenes in her native Philadelphia as well as anti-Vietnam and women’s rights demonstrations in New York. Quite promptly, when working for Look magazine, the American photographer chose to chronicle the existences of the desperate, the marginals, the homeless, the wounded of life such as Indian street prostitutes, psychiatric patients, juvenile heroine addicts: “I care about people and that’s why I became a photographer.”
In the July 1983 issue of LIFE magazine, writer Cheryl McCall and photographer Mary Ellen Mark published “Streets of the Lost,” an in-depth article and photo essay on Seattle street kids. In the piece, McCall and Mark tell the story of a group of homeless and runaway teens—Tina, a 13-year-old prostitute with dreams of diamonds and furs; Rat and Mike, 16-year-olds who eat from dumpsters; and Dewayne, a 16-year-old boy who hanged himself in a juvenile facility when faced with the prospect of returning to the streets. It’s uneasy subject matter, and a staggering portrait of what life without a stable home can look like.
Despite the darkness of her subjects, Mary Ellen Mark always managed to propose humanistic images, freed from obscenity and disapproval. She also captured the glamour of society as a recognized celebrity portraitist and an on-set photographer for Federico Fellini or Francis Ford Coppola. The photographer succeeded in linking the illustrious with the miserable in the same melancholic yet gentle manner: “I take sad photographs. But look at the tenderness.”