Visual Arts

Norton exhibit of Mary Ellen Mark photos tells the story of ‘Tiny’

Tiny looking out a window in juvenile detention, 1983
Tiny looking out a window in juvenile detention, 1983

Mary Ellen Mark, the great American photographer, had a career that encompassed some 21 books. And just before her death last May at 75, Aperture published Mark’s final two books, Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment and Tiny: Streetwise Revisited. The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach is now the world premiere venue for Mark’s last long-term project, an exhibition titled Tiny: Streetwise Revisited — Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark.

Tiny: Streetwise Revisited includes some 60 images drawn from Mark’s 30 years of documenting Tiny. In 1983, Mark began photographing the engaging Tiny, who was then a homeless 13-year-old prostitute lost in a Seattle underground of pimps, teenage prostitutes and drug dealers. Over the years, Mark followed Tiny —whose real name is Erin Blackwell — and her transformation into a 45-year-old drug-addicted mother of 10 children. Many of Tiny’s children, born to different and occasionally unknown fathers, are now facing the kind of squalid realities the 13-year-old Tiny once dreamed of escaping.

Throughout the process of chronicling Tiny’s life, Mark worked alongside her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell. In 1984, Bell released the documentary Streetwise, inspired by Mark’s initial photographs and incorporating Tiny and her circle, such street kids as Rat, Dewayne, Shadow and Munchkin. Many of the Streetwise kids met horrible fates: On the night before his 17th birthday, DeWayne Pomeroy hung himself in a juvenile correctional facility.

In the Norton’s Tiny: Streetwise Revisited exhibition, a photo of Pomeroy in his casket is situated in a display case, next to the original book Streetwise, published in 1988. The Pomeroy photo is a grim accompaniment to a curatorial statement by the Norton’s Tim Wride, displayed on a wall: “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited is a rare examination of intergenerational poverty, radiating out to issues of homelessness, education, healthcare, addiction, mental health and child welfare.”

The Norton exhibition is more or less an expanded version of the Tiny: Streetwise Revisited book; the photos occupy a small exhibition space and are displayed in according to Tiny’s chronological age. The exhibit begins with a haunting image, Tiny, Halloween, Seattle, 1983, with a very slender Tiny in black gloves and a proper black hat with a veil. Tiny looks like a little girl playing dress-up for Halloween, but in an essay written for the Tiny: Streetwise Revisited book, Mark reveals that Tiny considered the costume an upscale version of her workaday life, “She told us she was dressed as a French whore.”

In the photograph Tiny, 1983, Tiny is looking impossibly young and overcome by dreaminess, with one of her quotes from that era breaking the heart on many different levels. “I wanna be really rich …and live on a farm with a bunch of horses, which is my main best animal … and have three yachts or more … and diamonds and jewels and all that stuff.”

From the beginning of her life, the dream of a glittering future was slipping away from Tiny. Her mother Pat was a serious alcoholic, and turning tricks was a prelude to Tiny’s own future of drug addiction. In another photograph, Tiny looking out a window in juvenile detention, 1983), Tiny is depicted with a solitary tear running down her cheek.

Within the 1980s epoch of Tiny’s life on film, a smaller exhibition room contains a video monitor displaying the original Streetwise documentary by Bell, with Rat, Shadow, Munchkin and Tiny wandering the Seattle streets. A Tom Waits song, Take Care of My Children — with lyrics like “Stay clear of Lucifer’s hand” — is part of the film. (Bell has done another soon-to-be-released documentary, Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell tracing Tiny’s life from teenage prostitute to mother of 10 children.)

By 1985, Tiny was pregnant with her first child, Daylon, and the Tiny: Streetwise Revisited exhibition includes Tiny pregnant with Daylon, 1985 — Tiny lolling on a mattress on the floor, shirt pulled up and swollen belly in full view. On the wall is a hopeful 1985 Tiny quote: “I’ve always wanted a baby because it’s like something that was mine, that I could say was mine, and I could love and do things for.”

In 1989, Tiny first tried crack, and the Norton exhibition also examines this side of her life in Stoned Tiny sitting on the bed, 1989. By then, she’d had another child, LaShawndrea, and Keanna was on the way. Crack was the turning point, hooking Tiny immediately, and in 1993, while still in her 20s, Tiny started cutting herself, as a way to attract attention and momentarily focus the pain of her life.

Throughout the 1990s, Tiny’s life, at least from the evidence of the photos in the Norton exhibition, was occupied by drugs, alcohol and her children. Her kids came to include Mikka, Ranaja, E’Mari, Julian, Kayteonna, and J’Lisa: many of the kids are inter-racial, which hasn’t made her life any easier. In the photograph Tiny and Pat, along the road, 1993, Tiny is already looking old and heavy, steadily blurring into the grizzled face of her mother Pat. By 2004, Daylon, Tiny’s first-born, was getting into trouble, stealing cars and the like. Later on, Ranaja started to cut herself, as Tiny herself had at one point.

By 2014, Tiny is a grandmother with an edge, heavy-set and maintaining her addictions with regular doses of methadone. No longer a teenager, she’s vastly less hopeful in 2014: “I don’t know what the future holds for me, I mean, I just don’t know because it is so far away. I might not even make it. Anything could happen.”

This is a powerful exhibition, particularly considering the tony environs of Palm Beach and some Norton patrons: From certain perspectives, the work can be seen either as exploitive or titillating, an exercise in Squalor Porn, or simply necessary, a way to use art to shed light on a continuing American horror show. After the exhibition run at the Norton, Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, will travel on to the Seattle Public Library, a neat artistic conclusion to Tiny’s narrative arc.

Aperture’s Tiny: Streetwise Revisited has essays by Isabel Allende and John Irving, and it greatly improves the experience of the exhibition. In his piece, Irving notes that Seattle’s Green River Killer in the 1980s murdered some 28 young girls on the streets; the young prostitutes also faced venereal diseases, AIDS and drug overdoses.

Melissa Harris of the Aperture Foundation worked with Mark on the book and exhibition, and to Harris, Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, is indicative of the dedication Mark brought to her work.

“Mary Ellen was intense: There was no Mary Ellen Lite, nothing hit and run about her connection to her subjects. In the early 1980s, she offered Tiny the chance to come live with her and her husband in New York, go back to school and have a more normal life. Tiny decided to stay on the street, which was probably not a great decision, but clearly, Tiny is a survivor. Tiny’s life can inspire everything from sympathy to condemnation: This is not a neat little package of black and white morality. Tiny is the kind of woman people turn away from on the street, but in many ways, she’s truer to a certain kind of American life.”

If You Go

What: “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited—Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark.”

When: “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited,” is on view through March 20, 2016.

Where: Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach

Cost: $5 to $12 (Children under 12 free)

Info: 561-832-5196 or www.norton.org

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