Street kids, poverty and fortitude: Photographer Mary Ellen Mark's stirring last project

In 1983, photographer Mary Ellen Mark went to Seattle to chronicle the plight of the city's street kids in a story for Life magazine. On that journey, she met Erin Blackwell, a young teen with a hard stare. The slight yet fierce young woman was nicknamed "Tiny." Just 14, she was a runaway working as a prostitute, and she was accompanied by a pack of similarly troubled not-quite-adults facing the mortal demons of addiction, violence and poverty.

After the story ran — and after Mark's husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, made a related documentary, "Streetwise," in 1984 — Mark returned to shoot Blackwell again and again. In 1985, she captured the teenager looking pensive and very pregnant. In 1989, she snapped her looking dejected and high. The following year, she caught her bleary-eyed, smoking in Seattle's iconic Pike Street Market with her infant daughter Keanna strapped to her chest — the stuffed animal cuteness of Keanna's puffy onesie suspended just below a cloud of lingering smoke. 

SIGN UP for the free Essential Arts & Culture newsletter >>

There were shoots throughout the '90s and into the new millennium. In fact, the renowned documentarian was photographing Blackwell as late as last year — turning a one-time assignment into a three-decade long project.

Over the years, she captured Blackwell's struggles with crack, men and poverty, as well as moments of joy and compassion with friends, family and her 10 children. Mark and Blackwell also became friends and working colleagues of a sort. 

A selection of images from this long-running project has now been gathered in the new book "Tiny: Streetwise Revisited," published by Aperture. It is a bittersweet photographic treasure. Mark passed away in May and the book represents one of the last projects she worked on.

It also represents the celebrated photographer's tenacious approach to her craft.

"Photographers like Mary Ellen, they're really committed to what they're doing," says Melissa Harris, the book's editor, who had worked with Mark since the '90s. "They're not hit-and-run in their attitudes. It's about passion and a real investment in a person and ideas."

Featuring 145 gripping black-and-white images, "Tiny: Streetwise Revisited" is an often harrowing look at Blackwell's life and environment — but one done without judgment or prejudice.

"I was thinking about how fleeting and precious life is," writes Mark in the book's afterword. "Life is also arbitrary. For example, the choices that you make, the luck of being born into the right bed, to parents who support and help you, and who love you. That doesn't always happen—and then, what happens when it doesn’t?"

And that is the book's undercurrent — of how one individual, in moments of both strength and weakness, has faced the lifelong adversity of doing without. At a time of swelling poverty rates in the U.S., it's a story that couldn't be more poignant. 

"It speaks to so much," says Harris, of Mark's project. "It speaks to poverty. It speaks to the potential for homelessness. It speaks to education. In fact, it probably speaks to education more than anything since that's the only thing that can break the poverty situation — giving people the ability to make a life for themselves."

In a society where millions live a paycheck away from ruin, Mark's photos remind us that we are Blackwell and she is us.

That's not to say that Blackwell is anything less than extraordinary. She is tough. She is street-smart. She is imbued with a magnetic charisma — a willing collaborator to Mark's unblinking lens.

"This is a woman who is willful and stubborn and has this innate intelligence," Harris says. "She is a survivor."

"Tiny: Streetwise Revisited," ($42.50) by Mary Ellen Mark is now available from Aperture.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°