In a remarkable project finished just before her death in May 2015, acclaimed photographer Mary Ellen Mark finished a volume that documented the gritty, sad life of Seattle street urchin “Tiny”, a little girl with sweet sad eyes and big dreams of yachts and furs and diamonds. The Norton Museum of Art is hosting the world premiere of the exhibition, book and film based on the project.
Tiny: Streetwise Revisited – Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark, is on view through March 20, 2016, and organized by Aperture Foundation, New York. The show – which curator Tim Wride called “conservative and traditional” in design only, features about 60 images, many of which have never before been publicly displayed. The content is decidedly “tough, and documents a life and a relationship between subject and photographer that is most unusual” Wride says.
In 1983, Mark began a project called Streetwise for LIFE magazine that would become a poignant, painful, warts and all document of a fiercely independent group of homeless and troubled Seattle youth who made their way on the streets as pimps, prostitutes, panhandlers, and small-time drug dealers. Streetwise was a perfect fit for LIFE, whose large scale glossy pages and honest look at the nations underbelly earned critical acclaim for its portrayal of life on the streets and introduced the public to characters not easily forgotten, including, “Tiny,” a 13-year-old prostitute.
Once Mark met Tiny and her street gang of kids trying to be adults way too soon, she was hooked on their story. She conferred with her husband, Martin Bell, a filmmaker, and they decided to make a film on the street kids, raising $80,000 from singer/songwriter Willie Nelson. From Labor Day to Halloween in 1983, they filmed 50 hours, following the kids to arcades, alleys, doctors offices and parks. Thrown too young into this seedy, grown-up world, these runaways and castaways survive, but just barely, ignoring the camera and carrying on with devil may care teen candor – Rat, the dumpster diver; Tiny, the teenage prostitute; Shellie, the baby-faced one; and DeWayne, the hustler, are all old beyond their years.
The finished film, Streetwise, was nominated for an Academy Award. Rarely shown, the film is a mesmerizing time capsule portrait. The New York Times reviewed the film saying “This shapelessness, and the unacknowledged presence of the camera in what seem to be small, intimate moments, would hurt the film if its interview footage were not so unmistakably authentic and, at times, so wrenching. ”Streetwise” has its touches of sensationalism, but much of it is all too real.”
The 90-minute film is shown in a screening room at the exhibit. After meeting Tiny all those years ago, Mark continued to photograph her, creating what has become one of Mark’s most significant, and ultimately her last, long-term project. Now 45, Tiny’s life has unfolded in unexpected ways, including the fact that she is the mother of 10 children.
While the early images are of a perky girl with a shag hair cut, later photos follow her through multiple pregnancies, in run down homes vacuuming, fighting with her alcoholic mother, smoking, crying, gaining weight. Issues of homelessness, education, healthcare, addiction, mental health, and child welfare pervade these sad frames. You worry for the future of the kids with multiple fathers and no education. Most of the time they lay on the floor or a couch in diapers or dirty t-shirts. Mark’s images provide powerful insight into some of the more complex challenges of contemporary American life, yet also reveal the unique 30-year relationship between an artist and her subject. Why did Tiny trust her so much and let her into such a dream-filled, reality stained life? She seems not to care or is in desperate need of the attention, perhaps one reason she has so many kids.
Unlike her contemporary photographers like Diane Arbus, whose bizarre street shots were one time snaps, Mark worked at the long term relationship, even inviting Tiny to live with her at one point. Her dreams and nightmares are quoted on the exhibition walls: “Yeah getting involved with crack was a major turning point. I wanted to try it. It was all she wrote. It was all downhill from there. Yup, very first time. I was hooked.”
“I cut myself when I was in my twenties, I got really mad at this guy I was going out with, a drug relationship, whatever. I did mine more as self pity, wanting him to feel sorry for me, feeling sorry for myself. I loved Horsey,” she says of a beloved stuffed animal Mark gave her. “I kept him for a long time. And then I pulled it out and let the kids play with it, and…it died.”
The words paired above the pictures, make them hurt even more. Curator Wride separates photos of Tiny’s children in a different room, to cordon off a different part of her life, although she had her first child at 16 and continued until her 40s.
Mary Ellen Mark is “subtle in her photos,” Curator Wride said at the exhibit preview in the Norton Museum of Art.
“She doesn’t alter the photos in the developing process to force you where to look, there is no dodge and burn. She lays it all out there evenly. It’s a tough show. Though when I look at the photos of her kids Tiny allows them to be kids, unlike her own mother did to her. I do see some hope there.”
Aperture Books recently released a significantly expanded iteration of Mark’s classic monograph Tiny: Streetwise Revisited which was completed before Mark’s death. The book contains the iconic work of the first edition along with Mark’s moving and intimate body of work on Tiny, most of which is previously unpublished. Texts and captions are drawn from conversations between Tiny and Mary Ellen Mark, as well as with Mark’s husband, the filmmaker Martin Bell.
The book, exhibit and film provides a powerful education about one of the more complex sides of American life. It’s hard to look at, and even harder to look away. You can visit the Norton Museum of Art for the Tiny: Streetwise Revisited – Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark, which is on view through March 20, 2016. For more information about the exhibit, please check www.norton.org
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