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Remembering Mary Ellen Mark


Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark

Joni Kabana

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark — who was celebrated for her ability to capture the humanity of marginalized people — passed away Monday. Though she was based out of New York, she often photographed in Northwest.

Arguably her most famous work, “Streetwise,” looked at the lives of street youth in Seattle. She also had a series drawn from the 36 days she spent living in what was the women’s ward of the Oregon State Hospital.

“She has somewhat of a lightning bolt streak that can come out, and I loved that,” says her friend, photographer Joni Kabana. Mark was frank, sometimes critical, and “she would get irritated with mediocrity and laziness.”

But that was all part of the joy of being around her, says Kabana. “I did receive a few jolts, and I wish I could have more.”

Kabana was always impressed with Mark’s process of getting to know the subjects of her portraits. She exemplified the idea that good portrait photography is, according to Kabana, “99 percent psychology … and one percent technical craft.”

Kabana remembers a time when Mark was taking portraits of Kabana’s daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. The first thing she did was put down her camera.

“She just went in and asked them questions, and made them giggle, and made them feel uncomfortable, and she just went right into where they were as an awkward teenage couple. And then she brought the camera up and photographed them.”

Kabana, who is based in Portland and Adis Ababa, was visiting Mark’s hometown of New York in the days after Mark’s death. She had been planning on seeing Mark during the trip, in part to have a frank discussion in person about the ways Kabana feels she has fallen short of Mark’s advice. “It’s very difficult — I have not listened to her. And I think that I felt that I had a lot of time.”

The advice that Mark gave to Kabana? “She said, ‘You have to be more selfish,’” recalls Kabana. “And selfishness can have this negative connotation, it can have this hardness to it.” But what Kabana hears in that advice is “Nurture your own work.”

Kabana took that advice on the morning “Think Out Loud” talked to her. “I stopped someone on the street. I shot like I really felt.”

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