Mary Ellen Mark was a Philadelphia second grader when her class took a field trip to the state mental hospital.
“They took us to the senile unit and I was like, ‘Wow, this is interesting,’ ” Mark recalled the other day.
The visit sparked a curiosity about people on the edges, the underdogs of the world, whom Mark would focus on — quite literally — after becoming a professional photographer.
Now 74, she made a name shooting still photographs on movie sets, but also for her stark black-and-white portraits of circus people. The mentally ill. Twins. Even Mother Teresa.
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But it is the portraits she took for a 1983 Life magazine story about homeless kids living on the streets of Seattle that brought her the most attention.
The pictures were the genesis of “Streetwise,” a 1984 documentary produced by Mark and shot by her husband, Martin Bell.
Thirty years later, the film still packs a punch, capturing the street-corner and back-alley lives of a band of teenagers who inhabited Seattle’s Pike Street between First and Second avenues.
With the familiar Public Market sign glowing in the background, the boys pimped and panhandled. The girls smoked and slipped into strange cars for “dates.” In between, they shared the horrors of their childhoods with the casual air of a lunch order: Drunk mother, abusive stepfather. Father in jail. That’ll do it.
The unofficial star of the film is a 14-year-old prostitute named Erin Blackwell, known on the street as “Tiny.” She has a soft face, a shag haircut and a mother who is too addled by alcohol and fear to raise her.
In one scene, the mother rinses dishes behind the counter of the greasy spoon where she waitresses, and calls her daughter’s prostitution “a phase she’s going through right now. I can’t stop her,” while Tiny twirls on a stool, smoking and waiting for a cheeseburger.
Mark and Bell have returned to Seattle to check in on Tiny and some of the others in a documentary and accompanying book called “Streetwise: Revisited.” Some are dead, some are grandparents, but most continue to struggle.
“I feel very attached to that time,” said Mark, her hair in long black braids, her wrists jangling with jewelry. “It’s a time in my life that I’ll never forget.”
But funding the new project has been difficult. So last fall, she and Bell used Kickstarter to raise $85,000 to help fund his film, which he hopes to finish in a year.
Now, Mark is raising money to get her book published. The Aperture Foundation has agreed to publish it, but it is a nonprofit that can only afford half of what’s needed. The rest will come from donors.
So, Mark and Bell recently led a private Seattle fundraiser to talk about the project.
It turns out that “Streetwise” never really ended for them. They have been returning to Seattle every few years, mostly to check in on — and chronicle — Tiny’s life.
Mark was there with a camera when the girl’s first child, Dayvon, was born, and knows the names of all 10 of her children, who include five by Tiny’s current husband.
“She’s a fascinating subject,” Mark said of Tiny, now 44. “When you photograph reality, there are people that just really stand out. The way they respond to the camera is fascinating.”
Their relationship is, too. After “Streetwise” was finished and nominated for an Oscar, Mark and Bell invited Tiny to live with them in New York City, where they have an apartment and a studio in Lower Manhattan.
But the girl refused. She wanted children.
“You can only guide someone so much,” Mark said, adding that in all the years they have spent together, Tiny never asked her for money or help.
She was too proud, and Mark was too aware of what was at risk: “If you want to have a longstanding relationship,” she said, “you have to build it on friendship and not money.”
But always, Mark and Bell said, their goal has been to give voice to those out of the mainstream.
“You want to make other people aware that life is not so easy,” Mark said. “Aware, with acceptance and compassion.”
The changing media landscape has given her work urgency. There are no more magazines like Look or Life magazine to assign, fund and publish the kind of photo essays that are her signature.
“There’s no more voice for this kind of work. Magazines are about celebrities. It’s not about reality anymore. You’re looking at things that are so photoshopped.
“I was lucky when I started,” she said. “The magazines, they were like grants for me.”
They raised awareness, effected change, and allowed her to chronicle the lives of her subjects not just for two months in Seattle in 1984 — but for the rest of her life.
“I feel lucky that I have been given this opportunity to do it on my own terms,” Mark said. “We are part of each other’s lives. And we will be forever.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.