Street Smarts

For photographers, the camera acts as a small yet powerful barrier between themselves and their subjects. But what happens when that separation is blurred? What happens when a photographer becomes entrenched in the lives lived out on the other side of the lens?

Tiny, Halloween, Seattle, 1983, Mary Ellen Mark

   The Norton Museum of Art’s latest special exhibition, “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited – Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark,” looks at the results of one photographer’s decades-long fascination and intimacy with a subject. “Tiny” features 60 images Mark took over the course of 30 years. What started out as a Life magazine assignment to photograph Seattle street life morphed into a close examination of one person, Erin Charles, also known as Tiny.

   “Tiny became the nexus around which everything else spun,” says photography curator Tim Wride. When Mark began the series, Tiny was a 13-year-old prostitute with dreams of owning a horse farm. By the time the final image was snapped in 2014, Tiny had mothered 10 children—all of whom became subjects in Mark’s work. “That whole idea of the intimacy of their relationship, I wanted to show that extended to the family,” Wride says.

   Distributed over two exhibition rooms, “Tiny” begins as an introduction to the entire “Streetwise” project and then gradually transitions to focus on Tiny and her family. The images, which Wride describes as “almost embarrassingly intimate,” illustrate Tiny’s evolution with unflinching proximity; Mark captured the moments unseen, the pregnant pauses, the home life of a modern family. “This show is tough,” Wride says. “It’s a show that is so Mary Ellen because it’s such a humanistic take.”

Tiny pregnant with Daylon, 1985, Mary Ellen Mark

   Mark always straddled the line between art and life. She received a BFA in painting and art history before earning her MA in journalism. Her work shows an awareness of established motifs and a reverence for photography as an art form. She always shot on black-and-white film and frequently referenced traditional imagery, like the reclining Venus. Mark passed away in May of this year, but not before collaborating with the Aperture Foundation on her book Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, the inspiration and base for the exhibition. 

   The Norton Museum of Art is the first institution to host “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited – Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark,” which will be on display through March 20. For more information, visit

Tiny with J’Lisa on the couch, 2014, Mary Ellen Mark


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