Mark of distinction

THE SKINNY adolescent is dressed to kill in a black sheath dress, gloves and a straw pillbox hat with a veil. She stares challengingly into the camera lens. Her thin arms are crossed protectively across her flat chest, and there’s a small scar beneath her mouth. Her narrow face is care-worn, her thin lips curl downwards, her jaw is clenched as if she might be about to burst into tears. But the eyes behind the straggly fringe and the net veil are as unfathomable as the Sphinx.

This is Tiny, 13 years old in 1983, when this iconic photograph was taken. A child prostitute doing drugs on the streets of Seattle, Tiny cuts a defiant figure in Mary Ellen Mark’s famous portrait. The girl had pieced together a costume for Halloween and wanted, she told the renowned American documentary photographer, "to look like a French whore". In truth, she looks as if she is dressed for her own funeral.

Tiny - her real name is Erin Charles - did not die, although Mark says it’s a miracle that she is still alive, after turning tricks for years and becoming addicted to heroin, cocaine and crack. Today, she is 35, the mother of nine children to five different men, and she is no longer waif-thin; indeed, she is grossly overweight. She has had one abortion and has no idea who fathered two of her children. She is married - and proud of it - to the labourer father of her four youngest children. She has quit drugs and, according to Mark, is pretty much an average suburban housewife, albeit one who still struggles with her own demons.

There is a 1999 photograph of Tiny, sitting blank-faced on a sofa beside her smiling mother, Pat. It’s a deeply disturbing and profoundly sad picture. Tiny exudes melancholy from every pore, and the gulf between the two women seems immeasurable. But then you look at Mark’s 2003 photograph of Tiny, a mother herself, in the bathroom with her young children, Ray Shon and Tyrese, and it’s an image of pure, unconditional love.

For more than 20 years, Mark, who has been a freelance photographer since the mid-1960s and is now on contract to the New Yorker, has gone on photographing Tiny. She could never have known that late-autumn day in Seattle, when she released the shutter on Tiny’s portrait, that she was making a lifetime commitment to this troubled girl. But she did and, she insists, she will carry on photographing Tiny for the rest of her life, capturing the most mundane moments as well as the milestones.

Indeed, the one constant in Tiny’s tough, mean existence has been Mark and her camera. Mark photographed the birth of Tiny’s eldest child, Daylon, now 19, and was to have been there for the recent birth of her ninth, but Tiny went into labour a month early. Mark has watched Tiny’s two eldest daughters, LaShawndrea and Keanna Rose, grow from babies into teenagers. Daylon has already spent time in a juvenile detention centre and lives alone. LaShawndrea and Keanna live with Tiny’s aunt. When LaShawndrea talks about her mother, big tears roll down her cheeks, Mark tells me.

The 65-year-old award-winning photographer, whose new book, Exposure, brings together some of the most important images from her career, first encountered Tiny when she was on an assignment for Life magazine, doing a photo-essay about America’s street children - a relatively new phenomenon in the early 1980s. Mark found Tiny in the car park of a club called the Monastery in the spring of 1983. "She was an extraordinary-looking child-woman, only 13 and indeed very tiny. She was dressed like a grown-up - it was right out of Taxi Driver. When I tried to talk to her, she ran away because she thought I was the police."

She discovered that the girl occasionally lived with her mother, but when she wasn’t at home, she survived on the streets as a prostitute. "I found her the next day at her mother’s house, and we’ve been friends ever since," explains Mark, adding that Tiny has been a continuous photographic focus for her because she has the rare quality of being oblivious of the camera and totally at ease in front of it.

"Sure, Tiny has changed physically," agrees Mark. "She has gained a lot of weight, but she has this incredible face. You can feel what she feels, her suffering. When she was 13 she was beautiful, and she’s still beautiful in her own way because she has this inner strength; it’s not something from outside, and she’s able to show that aspect of herself to the camera. There’s a sadness in her face, too. It’s such an American face - an American working-class face."

Several months after she made the Halloween portrait, Mark returned to Seattle with her husband, the British documentary film-maker Martin Bell. He made the Oscar-nominated film Streetwise, about the city’s street kids, in which Tiny is the main character. He has just made a deeply moving new film about her and her brood of children, and showed me a rough cut in the studio he and Mark share in New York.

At one point, Mark and Bell even offered to adopt Tiny (they have no children of their own), but the teenager refused. She didn’t want to have to go to school. Yet Tiny obviously thinks of them as her surrogate parents, because she calls them whenever she is in trouble or needs their help, financial or otherwise. It’s this astonishing empathy with her subjects that makes Mark the most tender and compassionate of photographers, capturing complex, revelatory moments. She strips her subjects emotionally and they gaze back at her willingly, as if they have finally found a soul-mate.

Once voted Most Influential Woman Photographer of All Time by the readers of American Photo, she has spent four decades exposing dark, painful truths about the American nightmare, such as the homeless Californian family, the Damms, living in their car with two children and a dog, looking like latter-day Joads from The Grapes of Wrath; a forlorn 104-year-old man who insisted on being photographed naked in his home, a barren hotel room in South Beach, Miami; and a 15-year-old Puerto Rican, Jeanette, going into labour at a Brooklyn hospital in 1978. "Photographing Jeanette was a great learning experience for me," Mark writes in Exposure. "I learned how important it is to stay with a subject and become a part of his or her daily life. I also learned that you can capture more intimate moments by blending into the background."

ON MY way to Mark’s New York studio, I pass a woman in the street. Dressed in a leather aviator helmet, a long, black asymmetrical skirt and punkish boots, she has a covetable Issey Miyake scarf wound around her neck. She’s carrying several large bags, one of which bears a flamboyantly sequined portrait of the Virgin Mary. I stare unashamedly at her. Keen-eyed, she stares back at me, with a half-smile on her handsome features.

Although I have never seen so much as a snapshot of Mark - she is, after all, accustomed to spending her life on the other side of the lens - I know instantly that this is the woman I am here to interview.

Sure enough, when I ascend to her large, light-drenched studio, with its vases of orchids and collections of kitsch objects, such as tin robots and funky little toys, there she is, unpeeling several stylish layers of clothing. "I’ve just passed you on the street," she says, leaping energetically over to shake my hand, her waist-length pigtails - black as a raven’s wing - flying behind her, and her armful of silver slave-girl bracelets jangling.

With rings on her fingers - and no doubt bells on her toes, if she were to take off those fabulous black boots - Mark radiates warmth on a chilly spring day. It’s easy to see why people let this big-hearted, good-humoured, motherly woman slip into the fragments of their broken lives, with her battery of Leicas and Hasselblads, and why she has made her mark as one of the most inspirational photographers at work today.

All human life is reflected in Mark’s unblinking eye for a great story - she says she never thinks of a story, only of a single picture - and a near-perfect composition that is stripped down and totally free of artifice. She works mostly in black-and-white - there are only 17 colour photographs in Exposure; the rest are duotone images. Brooding images on a theme of greys and velvety blacks, with some blistering whites thrown in for punctuation. It is the contrast between wholeness and particularity, a raw quality that makes Mark’s photographs so unique, so immediate and so involving for the viewer. She has never switched to digital. "I love the negative; I love silver prints," she says. "I’m not about to give them up. Ultimately, those images will have more value historically."

In 2003 she began reviewing tens of thousands of her photographs, created over the last 40 years, to identify the ones that mean the most to her and which she wanted to include in Exposure, her 11th book. She edited them down to 1,000 images, and from these she selected 134. It wasn’t easy, she admits, and she has not arranged them chronologically, but rather to establish an introspective and confessional storyline.

We sit at the far end of her studio, away from the busy office space, with its insistent phones, wall-to-ceiling files of negatives and prints, and dozens of framed images of some of her most memorable photographs. On display are her signature pictures of life in the circus, of twins in America and of India - especially Benares, a city that has haunted her since she first visited it 30 years ago to photograph the burning ghats. A tireless seeker of mysteries, Mark is enchanted by the passion and mysticism of a place where people from all over the world come to die. She has spent time with the families who work there. She wanted to know how their children lived and played surrounded by death - and indeed one of her most haunting photographs is of a child raking through the smouldering ashes of the cremation grounds, searching for treasures such as gold teeth.

Families generally seem to intrigue Mark. And yet there is not a single picture in Exposure of her own home or family. "Other people’s families have replaced her own," writes the photography curator Weston Naef in his introductory essay for the book.

BORN in Philadelphia, Mark did not have a happy home life. It wasn’t dysfunctional in the same way as some of the homes she has seen, but it was "fairly dysfunctional". Her father was placed in a mental hospital several times, and her mother "was not a particularly stable person". So, she says, she grew up looking at photographs. She would come home from school, play with her dog, then go through old scrapbooks with pictures of her family: on holiday and at weddings, and just snapshots in general. "I was fascinated by that sense of time stopping and a moment being preserved for ever. I was also mesmerised by how people change over time, with age, and how the dress and customs of another era are so different."

When she was nine years old, she was given a Brownie camera. She took pictures of schoolfriends clowning around and at summer camp. She remembers that she couldn’t wait for a week to go by, so that she could pick up her photographs from the chemist. Many years later, some of these pictures appeared in the Mike Nichols film Carnal Knowledge, as props for a slide show that Jack Nicholson’s character presents.

Perhaps this is why she has concentrated so often on what it means to grow up in America - teenage girls and young women (and occasionally young men) are among her recurring themes. At school, Mark was head cheerleader, she had boyfriends, and attended the high-school dance hoping to be prom queen, although she says she always felt like the eternal outsider. As a result, she has often photographed these rites of passage with ironic sympathy.

Yet she only considered becoming a professional photographer after studying painting and art history at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also flirted with the idea of becoming an architect. "For years I was really lost and didn’t know which direction to go in," she says. She still has dreams about it today, about finishing college and not knowing how she is going to support herself, or what she is going to do, or where she will live.

In 1963, however, she was awarded a scholarship for the university’s Annenberg School for Communications. They offered a major in photography. From the moment she picked up an old Retina camera for her first school assignment, there was no turning back, she says. "I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be for the rest of my life." Her photographs have since appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Life, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.

Within a decade, Mark had also published several award-winning books of photographs - one documenting the women’s maximum-security ward at Oregon State Hospital, to which she gained access while working on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In 1978, she photographed prostitutes, in saturated colour, in the cheapest brothels of Falkland Road in Bombay.

The girls and their clients became the subject of another book. (Her studio business is Falkland Road Inc, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the regular customer at one brothel who told her to return to New York, bringing back some girls, and open her own establishment on Falkland Road.) She has also done stories on Mother Teresa, with whom she travelled for a week, on Irish travellers, and on white supremacists at a gathering of the Aryan Nations in Idaho. She has received three National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Robert F Kennedy Journalism Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and five honorary doctorates.

Over the years, though, she has always kept the marginal in her sights: moody families; nervous transvestites (this was 1968); carnival folk; ageing dames and dudes; youngsters facing a hopeless future; and the grinding poverty of rural life in the US. Mark was also one of the few female members of the prestigious Magnum photography agency - she joined in 1977 but left five years later. Since then she has published books on those Seattle street kids; a holiday camp for children with cancer in California; circuses in India and Mexico; and, most recently, twins in America - a project that had critics predictably comparing her photographs to Diane Arbus’s freakish siblings. It’s enough to make Mark boil with rage. "It’s simply because I’m a woman," she exclaims. "If she were Dave Arbus, nobody would even bother to make the comparison. And our photographs are very, very different anyway."

Mark photographed the twins using a 20x24 Polaroid camera at the Twins Day Festival, an annual gathering in Twinsburg, Ohio, and then she published her wonderful book, Twins. The most powerful image in it is of Bruce and Brian, who had cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus. Mark pictured them with their nurses, Teresa and Tillie, also twins.

"One of the most difficult aspects of being a documentary photographer is to take pictures of people like Bruce and Brian, whose lives are very compromised," she says. "Pictures like this often make the viewer feel uncomfortable and scared. They don’t understand them and accuse the photographer of being exploitative."

After the book was published, the twins’ sister wrote a deeply moving letter to thank Mark for including Bruce and Brian in her book. "It was one of the most rewarding moments of my career," she says softly. She adds that, of course, photography can’t change the world, but it can make people see and understand more - and that is her goal.

Currently, though, Mark despairs that she may not be able to continue fulfilling that ambition, although she insists that she will always follow her heart. No one wants to look at the real world any more, she sighs. No one wants to be confronted by the dispossessed, the delusion of racism, the misery of the brothel. "Human interest is of no interest. I’m not talking about depressing stories, but who would commission a story about a circus today?

"We’ve moved into an era of superficiality. Stories about the rich and famous are the only ones that sell, and I’m tired of magazines that are all surface - fashion, beauty, celebrity. There’s a crisis in photojournalism. It’s very tough, because a lot of magazines have closed, and I still have to make a living. My work is not arty enough for museums, although I’ve had exhibitions. More recently, though, I’ve had to finance projects myself. I pay for this by doing commercial work. I don’t mind. I still want, still need to photograph."

Nonetheless, Mark has led an incredibly rich life as a photographer and is immensely grateful for the fact that her photographs exist, especially those of Tiny, who has almost become her muse.

Does she think she saved Tiny’s life? "No," she replies. "You can’t change people’s lives. All I’ve done is document her life - and she has allowed me into her life, but I can’t force her to stop getting pregnant, for instance. When I met her at 13, she told me she wanted ten children, two yachts, horses, and to live on a farm. Well, she has sure got nine out of the ten!" n

• Exposure: Mary Ellen Mark, The Iconic Photographs is published by Phaidon (49.95)