JTF (just the facts): A total of 61 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls with a grey horizontal stripe in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1983 and 2014 and printed recently. Physical sizes are either 11×14 or 16×20 (or reverse); no edition information was provided on the checklist. The prints are grouped into a chronology, with sections for 1983, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1999, 2003, 2004, and 2014. The show also incudes Martin Bell’s 1984 documentary film Streetwise running on a video monitor and a vitrine with a selection of school portraits, magazine articles, contact sheets, drawings, and other ephemera. (Installation shots below.)
An updated monograph of this work has recently been published by Aperture (here). (Cover shot below.)
Comments/Context: While the physical click of the shutter inherently makes a photograph a record of a single moment in time, long term photography projects have the ability to spread time out, showing us the flow of the passing years and the evolution, change, and aging that take place in the spaces in between. From Nicholas Nixon’s portraits of the Brown sisters to William Christenberry’s images of Southern shacks and BBQ joints, the intense commitment to looking closely at the same subject over the time span of decades can produce powerfully nuanced results that extend far beyond the impact of a single picture.
Back in 1983, Mary Ellen Mark began making pictures of a group of runaways, prostitutes, and drug dealers working the streets of downtown Seattle. Many were no more than children, and Mark befriended a 13-year old girl named Erin Blackwell (her street name was Tiny), making her the central character in her wider photographic story. Mark’s photographs ultimately appeared in Life and in a well-regarded Aperture monograph called Streetwise, and her husband Martin Bell made a documentary film on the same subject. And if that had been the end of the project, we would see the early images of Tiny as just one of Mark’s many compassionate up-close investigations of the humanity of people on the margins.
But Mark didn’t let go of Tiny in the mid-1980s – she stayed in touch, continuing to reconnect every so often, making pictures as Erin grew into adulthood/motherhood and again repeatedly over the subsequent thirty years, connecting her teenage years all the way to the present. This gallery show (and the accompanying updated monograph) offers us the entire sweep of Mark’s photographic history of Tiny, and seen together, it’s nothing short of a landmark. Few long-term projects have documented the trials and tribulations of a life of hardship with as much trust and empathy as this one.
Tiny’s story begins as a brash teenage street hustler, and Mark captures her oscillations between adult and child with observant patience. Tiny’s tough trying-to-be-older side is seen in her spiky hair, her dissatisfied glower, her combative disregard, and her small time friends with guns. This swagger is then balanced by the tender momentary glimpses of her lost youth and the weight of her everyday struggles, from achingly sad tears in a juvenile detention facility to the desperate hug of a stuffed pony at an amusement park. Mark sees the grimness of the look in those faraway eyes and the ugly choices on offer, and documents Tiny’s unsettled personality as its two sides fight for dominance.
Just a few years later, Tiny becomes a teenage mother, and Mark follows along as drinking, smoking, and drug use (particularly crack) are intermingled with a succession of newborns by different fathers. Pregnant bellies alternate with stoned eyes, infants and toddlers sharing beds and being cuddled like dolls. As the brood expands (there will ultimately be 10 children), the domestic chores pile up and the strain on Tiny becomes more visible. Her face become a mask of stubborn weariness, and the built-up tension with her growing children and her mother Pat increases. We can watch in slow motion as her life gets away from her.
Many of Mark’s pictures are indirect portraits of larger social issues – poverty, lack of education, drug use/dealing/addiction, children with disabilities (most likely due to drinking and drug use during pregnancy), and racial prejudice (given the broad mix of fathers) are all present in Tiny’s story. And while these factors threaten to tear her family apart, there is still a surprising amount of love in Tiny’s world, a kind of defiant optimism in the face of obviously dispiriting realities. Kids still play at the beach, wear party dresses, and get smiling hugs from their mother. But in the quiet moments, Tiny’s face sinks, her body becomes heavy, and the tears start to flow, the frustrations of her life overwhelming her.
More and more children continue to arrive over the next set of years, and the most recent pictures in the series find Tiny handling the full range of needs of newborns and nearly grown adults alike. Puppies, Barbies, starfish, and headstands on the stairs lighten the mood, but black eyes, exhaustion, improvised meals, and crying on the couch bring the bone-tired heaviness of the reality home. It’s as if Tiny doesn’t have the knowledge or resources to get out of the self-destructive trap she’s been in her entire life, and she now knows it, which is doubly disheartening. By the end of the story, two tiny dogs seem to be her only source of momentary relief.
Nowhere in his 30 year spread of photographs is there implied criticism on Mark’s part – even though Tiny clearly made plenty of bad choices along the way, Mark is always a supportive and sympathetic observer, witnessing the slow grinding tragedy without much in the way of overt commentary. Her camera angles give the pictures life – turning, coming in from above, unbalancing the frame, or skewing the view to catch a laid out child, a vacuum cleaner, or the background context of a cluttered coffee table or a blaring TV. There is motion, tension, and instability in each moment, creating a catalog of unruly chaos that swirls around Tiny and her family. Across the many years, the photographs always seem to balance vulnerability with stubborn pride, the cycles of the story ever changing and ever the same.
What’s important about this body of work is its honesty and its enduring collaborative trust. Tiny allowed Mark to repeatedly probe the dark underbelly of her life, and Mark repayed that openness with careful pictures that captured its contradictions but didn’t sugarcoat the truth. Even at 13, Tiny knew she wanted to tell the world her story, and in Mary Ellen Mark, she lucked upon one of the most compassionate and committed photographers of her generation. The result was a lifetime of tough images that are vibrantly genuine and consistently heartbreaking, an intimate multi-act American tragedy with an against-the-odds heroine who sadly can’t escape her own sorrowful destruction.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are for sale via Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York (here), and while no prices were immediately available at Aperture, it is safe to assume that they are similar to those in the recent retrospective show at Howard Greenberg (here).