I’ve recently been reading a student’s thesis for her degree of Master of Science (History of Art and design) where Jennifer L. Stoots argues that Mary Ellen Mark, who is best known for being a documentary photographer actually approached her project ‘Ward 81’ as an artistic investigation and set out to create ‘stand alone works’ rather than creating a series of images that depended on a narrative; she must have been doing something right whilst taking them since apparently the hospital’s staff and superintendent constantly referred to her as being ‘an artist’.
We have to remember she shot this project in the 1970s, at a time before photographers had broken into the gallery exhibition world and at a time when photographers were engaged with mass culture and addressing social issues.
In her paper, Stoots writes:
“Her confidence that the Ward 81 series should be
defined as “art” is made apparent after she left the hospital; over the next four years,
Mark would dedicate her energies toward securing funding and scheduling exhibits for Ward 81 at art museums, non-profit exhibition spaces and commercial galleries;
between 1976 and 1980, Mark would also be awarded two grants and had eight
exhibitions of the work, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Thus, there can be little question that Mark deliberately aestheticized this body of work by placing it in both art and commercial contexts. When the work was exhibited at Castelli Graphics gallery in New York, in the spring of 1978, some reviewers responded to the “normalcy” of the women portrayed in the photographs”.
I think we could easily consider how a ‘creative artist’ based approach on ‘documentary narratives’ could develop a following and engagement. In 2020 Mark’s book ‘Ward 81’ fetches a premium price.