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Still from Streetwise (“Rat”)

The passing of gritty, realist, empathetic American photographer Mary Ellen Mark this week is a good occasion to reflect on the artist’s work, both historical and ongoing: for even at the age of 75, Mark was, like so many artists who never need to feel the need to retire from what is their beloved occupation and not just work, very busy and had important projects on the go. The traditional film photographer, who started out on a Brownie as many artists of her era did, had even embraced and made excellent use of the most modern and necessary devices of artists today in the digital space: fully funding a modest budget of $85,000 for a new documentary via Kickstarter for her upcoming project with her husband and long time collaborator, Martin Bell.

Rediscovering any half-remembered but once, very resonant work today means, often, falling down delightful wormholes through the internet and YouTube, where old TV clips have been lovingly uploaded instead of lost to time, and where the dedicated can form our own follow up chapters to the great documentaries we remember that haunted us once, and were thought to be closed chapters in the pre-internet age. I had no idea when I watched Streetwise (1984) that Mary Ellen Mark, the amazing photographer being celebrated everywhere this week, was behind that film (via a 1983 LIFE magazine photo essay “Streets of the Lost” about street kids in Seattle and their way of life, their modes of survival and their individual personalities, as they let her into their world with candour and with their guard unexpectedly down.) Shortly after the piece was published in LIFE, Mark’s husband Martin Bell, convinced her to return and assist with a feature length documentary on the same large group of kids, many as young as 13 and most of them cast out or runaways from bad home situations. The film would later garner a nomination for an Oscar.

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The impossibly striking Mary Ellen Mark still that became the film’s cover/poster image beggars belief. Did this lost little child really go around gritty downtown Seattle dressed as a French whore from another era? Well, no. We are told in the film that this was “Tiny’s” Halloween costume and it would not surprise me or bother me if she was taken to a thrift shop to buy this dress up outfit to please herself. No one could resist wanting to do something nice for this kid. Except the old men in the big boat cars that drove her away for “dates” daily. The costume is an eye raising moment to the skeptical older viewer I am today, who can also critically appreciate the stunning beauty and shocking sadness of that one perfect image that represented a lot of the film’s point of view and one of its key subjects, a heartbreaking, adorable, hardened and alone child, a truly streetwise prostitute from the age of 13. Tiny was like a stubborn little bird against the cold wind in what was then perceived to be among America’s most livable, pleasant, and successful cities, and smaller/more community based than the already gritty and very rough New York City or Los Angeles of that time.

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Photo: (“Tiny”) by Mary Ellen Mark

As I viewed the film initially in my own youth, at a time I was probably the same age as Tiny (on our amazing local station TVO, the sole bastion and hope for culture in our suburban, 13 channel cultural wilderness of my life in Toronto) and probably, while I was domestically quite safe,  lived rather unparented myself in that I watched, read and learned of the world whatever I wanted from wherever my interests led me, with little understanding or control from my otherwise occupied parents, this film hit me on a very deep level, a new kind of feeling (deepest empathy for people I did not actually know) confusion, sadness and anger at the world. Beautifully shot in black and white, Streetwise is presented without context, without much exterior explanation or talking heads, and the subjects are allowed to present themselves on their own terms, in their own elements, judgement free, much like another stellar documentary of that time, Paris is Burning. Streetwise was a stunning film and something I would never forget. I knew some kids that lived just on the other side of the main street from me that were another world away, in poverty, with broken families, poor nutrition, parents struggling with drugs and alcohol, but everyone went to school, had friends, and had a warm bed to sleep in, even Toronto’s poorest. And the grounds were pretty well kept, as I observed when I “hung around” there, something I was expressly forbidden to do anywhere (aside from my own safe yard and street).

There are some beautiful scenes in the film that one thinks may be too cinematic to be real, like the great Halloween costume and the kids living in an abandoned, clean, derelict hotel who roller skate up and down the hallways. But this is presented as the absurd and delightful side of these kids’ strange reality, which has its perks (FREEDOM) along with its true difficulties: sexual diseases, pregnancy, fear of rape and violence, drug addiction, the daily hustle to eat, hopelessness. All that seems to be part of their landscape. They are actors, performers, for the camera, and for the world. They also form street personas, find humour in their situations, build allies and form crushes, just like anyone would. Tiny cuddles and hugs her little dog with an urgency that just tells you she will soon look to fill that same need for unconditional connection with stray kids, early and often. Her need, closely guarded except with her dog, is too much for her sometime boyfriend, a beautiful kid called “Rat”.

Mary Ellen Mark made an indelible impact in the world of photography, bridging the eras at the end of the many wire & news services and self-driven shops that used to thrive for talented photo-journalists that the world still badly needs even though support and respect for real photography is so eroded in the age of the camera phone. What amazes me is that with her long and storied career, the kids of Streetwise, and particularly Tiny, stayed with her and Bell, deeply rooted in her heart, not just a great image she could reproduce and sell and retreat to the normalcy of her artist’s life in New York. Rather, the couple championed Tiny through the intervening 30 years to this day, staying connected as friends, being present in her life, her children’s lives (survival, for much of it) and eventual motherhood, family, and struggle towards recovery and the home in the country that a little, cute, 13 year old girl dreamed of, as she eked out a living on those streets no one even knew were mean, while, like Ted Bundy before him, The Green River Killer (and OTHERS) preyed on her friends and killed many of her kind unfettered by police for decades. This lasting, true, and honourable friendship between artist and subject, documentarians and street kids, is really notable and surprising. It gives hope in the bleakness, and meaning to art that can make one want to go back to 14 and find a way to be a real artist and change the world.

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Photo: Mary Ellen Mark from Life Magazine (“Rat & “Mike”)

Streetwise, while obscure and out of print for years, has taken on a life of its own due to the impact it made on the impressionable minds of the time. Its real kids seem to have informed the 90’s darkness of the film Kids with its doomed, hip and streetwise skater rats that have replaced the 80’s roller skaters, as well as Harmony Korine’s later works of celebrating strange and poor like Gummo. These streetwise kids, as curated by Mark and Bell, had a lot of style, and were beautifully young and photogenic, with innate acting talent, and today might have been scooped up by Hollywood and maybe even prospered.

The Kickstarter project mentioned above, underway for the past year (which is expected to continue on in Mary Ellen Mark’s memory in the near future) is a sequel about the unforgettable Tiny called “Streetwise: Tiny revisited”. Great documentaries don’t end, they don’t have to anymore. We keep them alive and when they hit home they become intertwined with life itself.

Streetwise, which has been very hard to find, is currently available on YouTube. We’ll be looking out for “Streetwise: Tiny revisited” once it is available for purchase or streaming through official sources. 

By Jacqueline Howlett