Late Photographer Mary Ellen Mark's Work Spotlighted in New Three-Volume Book

The-Mary-Ellen-Mark-Foundation Photo of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
© THE MARY ELLEN MARK FOUNDATION

In 1975, Mary Ellen Mark captured the cast of 'One Flew Over
the Cuckoo’s Nest,' filmed at an Oregon psychiatric hospital. She
returned the next year, shooting for 36 days in a locked ward.

Her storied career as a documentary photographer is chronicled in 'The Book of Everything,' featuring more than 600 images of everything from Hollywood film sets to Seattle street kids.

For nearly 50 years, when high-profile films needed a highly accomplished photographer to shoot behind-the-scenes stills, they turned to Mary Ellen Mark. Known for her harrowing yet openhearted images of street kids, sex workers and others living on society’s margins, she also became one of Hollywood's most sought-after set photographers, documenting more than 100 films, from The Day of the Locust and Apocalypse Now to On Golden Pond and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Mark died in 2015, at 75, but her storied career is chronicled in The Book of Everything (Steidl), a new and extraordinarily thorough retrospective that, while 880 pages, somehow manages to feel as intimate as a diary peek. Conceived and executed by her husband, director Martin Bell (American Heart, Streetwise), and Mark’s studio, the three-volume box set, which includes more than 600 images, plays like a documentary film, with perfectly placed interviews, snippets of Mark's own writings, and vivid remembrances from people she shot that explore the way this renowned photographer moved through the world.

Mark’s strength as a documentary photographer — her ability to embed in the uneasy, quickly shifting worlds of heroin users, psychiatric patients and white supremacists — served her well when it came to capturing the flickering emotional undercurrents and surreal aspects of life on set. Although she once described movie making as a “complex circus,” Mark’s portraits of celebrated directors (Fellini and Truffaut, Lumet and Burton) and stars (Cagney, Depp, Dunaway, and Deneuve, among countless others) often find her subjects in quiet, vulnerable moments.

One of those stars was Jeff Bridges, who played the lead in American Heart, the 1992 film that sprang from Mark’s Life magazine photo story about hard-up street kids in Seattle.  “She was just so immersed in the subject matter,” Bridges tells THR. “There’s this tremendous care and interest that radiates throughout Mary Ellen’s work. She had a knack for pulling the trigger at just the right moment.” Her iconic image of a taut, tattooed Jeff Bridges, taken for American Heart, was so riveting that it became the poster for the movie.

But Bridges, who has published two books of his own on-set images, also remembers her for what she gave him personally: “I was so fortunate to have her as the set photographer,” he says, “because she became my mentor and gave me so much wonderful advice, from F-stops to framing to what to pay attention to.”

Eyes open and ever curious, Mark herself was also learning on the sets. (“My greatest visual influences are films,” she told one interviewer.) As Bell recounts to THR: “Watching and listening to so many great directors working with actors, cinematographers moving the camera and creating atmospheric lighting effects, costume designers and makeup artists all added to [her] vocabulary of making strong images.”

Sometimes, the on-set work had an even more direct influence: In 1975, Mark shot Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was filmed at an Oregon state psychiatric hospital. “Mary Ellen asked the director of the hospital if he would take her onto a locked ward for women,” Bell remembers. “He agreed. In 1976 Mary Ellen returned and spent 36 days in the locked ward.” The result was her unsettling but deeply empathetic book Ward 81.

One of The Book of Everything’s most striking images has Dennis Hopper peering through a hole in a tattered American flag. Mark made the now-iconic frame during the 1976 filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines where driving rains turned sets to mud and put emotions on edge. Bell says that Mark had noticed the torn flag earlier. “When she arranged time to photograph Dennis Hopper, she would have brought him by the flag, and he used it in the moment,” he told THR. “Mary Ellen worked with actors like that. They would discover the photograph together.”

Bill Shapiro is the former editor-in-chief of LIFE magazine.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.