When Mary Ellen Mark passed away at age 75 earlier this year, she left behind a legacy as one of the great humanistic photographers of our time. Mark, whose work settled uneasily on the nexus of art and journalism, shot for Life, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and more, winning major career accolades from the likes of the George Eastman House and the World Photography Organisation. She focused her lens on the marginalized and disenfranchised among us—the “folks for whom attention has not been paid,” according to Tim Wride, the Norton Museum’s director of photography. And perhaps most importantly, she gave the world Tiny.
In an effort to explore the underbelly of Seattle in 1983—after the city had earned the designation as the United States’ most livable city—Mark discovered Erin Blackwell, a 13-year-old prostitute hooking under the street name Tiny. Little did Mark know that meeting this sullen teenager with champagne dreams would provide a grounding force for her photography for the rest of her life.
Long after she released “Streetwise,” her iconic 1988 book about the hustlers, pimps and drug dealers of the Seattle underground, Mark continued to shadow Tiny, her mother Pat, and Tiny’s increasing clan of children, all of them bearing names far more exotic than their depressingly familiar milieu. Though Mark didn’t live to see it, the resulting exhibition of her career-long connection with Tiny, titled “Streetwise Revisited,” world-premiered at our own Norton Museum this week, and it packs quite a wallop. At his press tour yesterday, Wride acknowledged that “Streetwise Revisited” is a “tough show”—an understatement—and that the photographs are “almost embarrassingly intimate,” the result of “an intimacy that only comes with time.”
He’s right about that: Mark’s exquisitely framed and lighted black-and-white snapshots of Tiny’s perennially trailer-bound life are so voyeuristic you’ll want to look away. The sense of innocence lost permeates even the earliest images in the exhibition, like 1983’s “Tiny, Halloween, Seattle,” in which her costume is a veil and black dress, her lips curled in a frown. A holiday that for most children is a time of ludic celebration is, for Tiny, a veritable funeral.
Smiles are few and far between in Mark’s curation of Tiny’s life. In “Tiny on Pike Street,” she stares blankly into Mark’s camera, resembling a glum Joan Jett—the closest image we have of Erin Blackwell enjoying a night on the town. She’s far from alone in her despair and squalor; the Seattle that Mark depicts in these early ‘80s images is decidedly unlivable. In one shot, a street urchin hides a gun in his jacket while walking in front of a ledge covered in garbage; in “Tiny on a Bench,” she sits in the melancholy foreground, while a homeless men stretches on the bench behind her. Few images in the exhibition are quite as heartbreaking as “Tiny in Juvie,” in which she stares out a window at the freedom that has thus far eluded her, a single tear trickling down her cheek.
Tiny’s life in the 1980s may be familiar even to those who haven’t seen Mark’s work, since her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, adapted “Streetwise” into an Academy Award-winning documentary film. As part of “Streetwise Revisited,” the Norton is showing the 91-minute feature, also titled “Streetwise,” on a loop. It’s almost surreal to see Tiny and Pat’s interactions in full color, because she has seemingly lived such a monochrome, rudderless life. In a 1989 image, Tiny, posing with one of the earliest of her 10 children, couldn’t have been more than 19 years old, but she looks amazingly old, and more like her mother with every passing year.
And so it continues, into the 1990s and 2000s. As Tiny’s family multiplies, her squalid living quarters remain the same, and her unhealthy habits and addictions etch themselves into Mark’s frames. In one image, Tiny vacuums her carpet while wearing a look that can only be described as abject misery. In another, Mark catches Tiny and Pat in mid-argument, with the elder Blackwell raising her fist in anger. “Tiny Crying and Smoking” is a matter-of-fact title for Mark’s fearless close-up of her subject in anguish, and in one of the final images from their collaboration, circa 2014, an obese Tiny sits on a couch, crying and slumped over a table cluttered with her vices—pills, cigarettes, a Papa John’s plate.
So yes, “Streetwise Revisited” is, as Wride stated, a tough show. There are times when you’ll want to weep for its subject, tsk-tsk in judgment from your comparable comfort, or open a vein. Wride joked about “setting up a bar in the final gallery,” so that visitors might drown their sorrows.
But he insists that, unexpectedly, “Streetwise Revisited” is a not a “dead-end story. She’s allowed her kids to be kids, through all the hardships. It’s not without an optimistic ending.”
You might want to hold on most to the shots that confirm Wride’s admittedly Pollyannaish take, which resonates most in a 2003 shot of Tiny smiling as her son Rayshon embraces her in the bathroom. If hope transcends the family’s circumstances, it’s through the children, and it’s their presence that dominates the closing gallery of this exhibition.
Even here, it’s mightily disturbing to see an image of daughter LaShawdrea in close-up, with a black eye, because we’re left with no choice but to ponder its provenance. But in most of the images, the children appear, if not happy, then comforted and cared-for. Kayteonna gazes at Mark from her perch on a hobby horse; J’Lasa dances like a ballerina and performs a handstand at the head of a staircase, looking like a liberated rag doll.
Tiny is in some of these photographs too, like a 2004 bedroom shot with son Ranaja. There’s a glazed-over look in her eyes that suggests that she’s probably high, but she’s almost smiling. In this profound, compassionate examination of what real poverty looks like, we’ll take every “almost” we can get.
“Streetwise Revisited” runs through March 20, 2016, at the Norton, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission costs $5-$12. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.