Inspiration : Mary Ellen Mark

“There is nothing more extraordinary than reality”

Mary Ellen Mark is an American photographer, born in Pennsylvania in 1940. She is known for her photojournalism and her documentary photography. She photographed people showing an interest in those who were “away from mainstream society. She died in 2015 and was a member of Magnum Photos. Her work has been exhibited in the USA, received many awards.

She graduated in Fine Arts and Painting then went on to a masters degree in Photojournalism. In her twenties, she moved to New York and photographed demonstrations in opposition to the Vietnam War, the Women’s liberation movement and Transvestite culture. Her photography addressed problems such as homelessness, loneliness, drug addiction and prostitution. She was attracted to people who were outside the borders of society.

She spent time on her projects, getting to know the people she was photographing. For example, she lived for six weeks in the security ward of Oregon State Hospital and when she went to India, she lived for three months among the prostitutes of Bombay.

Falkland Road

The book, “Falkland Road” shows a series of photographs taken in 1978 and 1979. They show the life of the prostitues of Falkland Road, a street in Bombay that is lined with wooden buildings. On the ground floor, there are cage-like structures and above these, the buildings rise. Girls ranging in age from eleven to over sixty gather, sitting in clusters on every windowsill. Mary Ellen Mark was met with hostility, the women threw garbage and water, the men would crowd around her. She had already visited before but in 1978 she decided to try to get some good photographs. It took her a long time and much resilience to be accepted. Initially, she connected with the street prostitutes, those who are independent, not inside a brothel. Then she got to know the transvestites and finally managed to stay for a few nights in Fatima’s brothel. Fatima is a madam who has three girls. The most difficult people to connect with were the cage girls, considered very low class. They suffer abuse and ridicule from the customers and other prostitutes.


Mary became very close to a madam called Saroja who accepted her in a higher class brothel on the third floor of number 12. She followed the life of the brothel and witnessed the relationships between the madam and the girls : a mix of mother/daughter and master/slave. Mary had an emotional departure, women cried farewell from their windows and some came out to shake her hand.

The photos of this project were not published in Geo because the editors said they were too explicit for the American market. Stern, the German magazine published them.




Her most famous work is her book “Streewise” which was developed in parallel to a documentary film by her husband Martin Bell. This project started out in 1983 as an assignment for Life magazine with the reporter Cherly McCall. It is about the life of street kids in Seattle. As they were driving around, they saw a group of kids by a graffiti wall. They were very suspicious of the two ladies, persuaded that they were undercover cops. Mary says that two things helped them to be accepted. The first thing was when she received a fine for jaywalking (crossing the street in a dangerous place). She stood up to the cop who gave her the ticket and the kids gathered around to watch the lady stand up to a cop. The second thing that helped was being accepted by Lulu, an influential girl in the neighbourhood. Lulu was nineteen, she was gay and had been on and off the streets since she was nine. She was constantly defending the kids, often fighting off men and women much bigger and stronger than herself.
One by one, Mary came to know each of the street kids. Once the relationship had started, the project could begin.


“My favourite thing to do is to go back, that’s how I get my pictures.”

Mary became friends with a 13 year old prostitute known as “Tiny”. She became a confidente and the central subject to this series. Tiny We learn that Tiny dreamed of a horse farm, diamonds and furs, and having ten children. Mary offered to adopt Tiny on condition she went to school. This wasn’t possible for Tiny so she stayed on the streets. Mary Ellen Mark visited her consistently till her death in 2015, photographing her and making a number of films.

The project carried on through the year, Mary Ellen and her husband Mark Bell making a film documenting the lives of these street kids.

Mary returned to Seattle with the finished film in 1984 to show the film to the street kids. It was a success, the children laughed every time they saw Lulu, and as the film went on and became more serious, the children became silent. At the end, many were in tears. As Mary tells us, at the end, one boy went up to Martin and asked “Are our lives really like this?”.

A book “Streetwise” was published in 1988, and Mary published later a book called “Tiny : streetwise revisited” which takes us from a 13 year old girl to motherhood.

We also learn that Lulu died in 1985, stabbed to death in a street fight.

“If you can shoot on the streets, shoot spontaneously, you can shoot anything.”


In her introduction to the book Falkland Road, Mary Ellen tells us that today, no magazine would sponsor such projects. The real world in no longer seen in magazines. She says the only documentary photography we see is of war and disasters. Everything else has been replaced by fashion and celebrities. I think she has a valid point here, there is little place now for these long term, intimate projects. There is no money in this market and it is a real shame.

If you haven’t read it, I made a short article about another American photographer called Suzanne Stein who coincidentally started photography in 2015, the year Mary Ellen Mark died. The link to the article is here. This shows that documentary photography is still alive but often difficult to find in the jungle of social media.

Mary Ellen Mark published twenty one books in her career and taught photography workshops for more than 30 years.

Some links to follow :

The Asahi Pentax 50mm 1.4

I’ve been trying a few vintage 50mm lenses on my Sony a7r3 recently. I use a cheap adapter I found on amazon. There are no contacts, the adapter is there purely so that the focal plane of the lens is exactly on the sensor. The mount of a mirrorless camera is much closer to the sensor than the film was on the reflex cameras the lens was made for so the adaptor allows to change any mount (here a m42 screw) to the sony FE mount while placing the lens at the correct distance from the body.

The barrel of the Pentax lens is about 4cm long whereas the sony 50mm 1.4 in FE mount is nearly 11cm long. If you count the adapter, that adds 3cm, the total length is about 7cm. That is 7cm vs 11cm : a real gain in size. It actually places this combo at around the length of the sony FE 55mm 1.8 lens. The Pentax Asahi 1.4 is manual focus whereas the sony FE 50mm 1.4 is an autofocus lens and logically bulkier too.

Let’s talk about image quality a little. For me, the 50mm focal length is a great all round lens. I use it a lot for portraits but also for street and travel photography.

Sony A7RIII with Asahi Pentax 1.4 at f/1.4

I like the colours and the pop I get out of this lens. The photo looks nice and sharp until you zoom in 100% (but who does that ?)

Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 15.31.48

You can see that the eye is in focus and pretty sharp but there is a dreamy quality to the picture. As I understand, these are spherical aberrations because the light passing through the outer portion of the lens wide open refracts differently to the light that passes through the centre of the lens. So when you close the diaphragm, the lens seems sharper.

To be honest though, I don’t mind this dreaminess and you wouldn’t notice it on a print.  Another portrait :

Sony A7RIII with Asahi Pentax 1.4 at f/1.4

On both these portraits, I like the bokeh on the background. On this second photo, taken at a photography exhibition, you can see sturdy metal grids with photos hanging off them. A busy background to blur out and I like the result.

So how it is for outdoor, more candid photography? Well, the only thing to master is the focusing. All the photos in this article were taken at f/1.4. Why get a 1.4 lens if you can’t use it at this aperture? That doesn’t mean to say you should always use a lens wide open, quite the contrary in fact, but if it works at f/1.4 then I can use it at any aperture.


It is a difficult task to photograph someone moving, even in a predictable way with a manual focus lens. On a small screen this photo looks roughly ok but a 100% crop shows a severely blurred image.

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 16.15.19

If we look at another one :


This one looks much better, the man was shuffling forward quite slowly. The 100% crop shows a lack of sharpness on the sharpest part of the photo :

Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 15.24.19

I could get away with this one I think. The last photo I have taken during my test is nice and sharp, the subject however wasn’t moving. I still had to take the photo as quickly as possible before she moved away.


I really like the background blur, I find that the lens has a real 3d pop to it.

Some conclusions: 

  • It is a great lens, I love the rendering, especially for portraits.
  • Bokeh is very nice, even on difficult backgrounds
  • The transition from sharp to out-of-focus is smooth. This gives the lens a nice three dimensional look.
  • Focusing is difficult on moving subjects when the lens is wide open. I had more failed attempts than successful ones. I know that sharpness isn’t everything, but standards have changed a lot since the 1960’s and a reasonably in focus subject is mandatory in my mind.

So if you find one second hand in a flea market that looks in good condition, get one! You won’t regret having such a tiny lens that has so much character!







Faces of …. Thailand

Last november, I posted a photoessay called Faces of … Rajasthan, a series of portraits I took with the Fuji x-t1 and the 56mm f/1.2 (85mm equivalent) while visiting India. In october, I went to Thailand. I took the x-t2 and the 90mmf/2 lens (135mm equivalent).

Faces of Thailand 1
Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2.8 + 1/900s + ISO 200

I was easy to engage people to take portraits although I speak no Thaï and English is not widely spoken. In that respect, I enjoyed India more because I could chat with local people. I used sign language and got along fine.

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2 + 1/125s + ISO 800

The 90mm focal length is a different beast to the 56mm. I got mainly headshots standing at a couple of metres back. From a distance of conversation with the 56mm you have the choice to step back and get a head&shoulders or step forwards and get a headshot. With the 90mm, if you don’t move, you get a headshot. If you want a wider shot, you have to move back several step and I find this a bit awkward, it looks as though you are moving far away from the person you are shooting.

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2.5 + 1/550s + ISO 200

The shutter speed is much less forgiving than with the 56mm, at 1/125s, the eyes are not always tack sharp. A slight movement of the subject or the photographer is all it takes. At 1/250s I get more consistant results. I will know next time… live and learn!

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2.5 + 1/640s + ISO 200

I met some fabulous people, the two guys above are friends and were chatting in a park in Bangkok. I went up to ask them if and where the komodo dragons were (yes, they live freely in the park!).
The following pictures are from a tribe village in the north, near Chiang-Rai. A controversial visit to be sure, but the people were friendly to those who tried to communicate a little.

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2 + 1/125s + ISO 800


Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2 + 1/750s + ISO 200

Next is a little girl I photographed in Chiang-Mai. She was with many others at the foot of a temple, dressed up in traditional costume to ask for money of tourists.

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2 + 1/1500s + ISO 200

This lady was also at the temple, selling flowers. She was very friendly and has a great smile.

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2 + 1/1250s + ISO 200

A kind man I met at a temple in Chiang-Mai who was keen to chat (he speaks good English) and give us all the best places to visit. He works at an Elephant sanctuary and was visiting Chiang-Mai himself.

#58 A
Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2 + 1/140s + ISO 200

A burmese monk visiting the golden triangle where the Mekong meets Laos and Burma. He was visiting with other monks, taking photos of everything and got a few selfies with our children!

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2.8 + 1/500s + ISO 200

The Thai are a great mixture between traditional and modern. As the county was in official mourning after the death of the king, most people were wearing black or dark clothes. A strange sight indeed.

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2.8 + 1/125s + ISO 640

We visited some small villages in the north of Thailand. The tourist trade helps bring some revenue to an otherwise poor region.

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2.8 + 1/420s + ISO 200

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2 + 1/1250s + ISO 200

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2 + 1/1900s + ISO 200

This lady was weaving at her house, a little of the main street. Her husband was peeling palm tree bark and chewing it. I went up to see and his made me taste. It is very bitter!

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2.8 + 1/125s + ISO 250

A labourer working to clean around a temple before a royal visit. He was using a large wooden tool to stamp the ground to make it firm. He let me try and had a good laugh!

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2.8 + 1/480s + ISO 200

This lady was sitting at a geyser pool in water nearly 70°C. Good for the joints apparently. It nearly burned the skin off me!

Fuji X-T2 + XF90mmF2 @ f/2 + 1/550s + ISO 200