In the center of the photo frame, a teenager flashes a gun. The scene is 1983 on the streets of Seattle, where photographer Mary Ellen Mark was documenting the lives of runaways and street kids for a Life magazine photo essay. Even in black-and-white film, the steeliness of the gun cuts through the photo, as does the stark feeling of survival and a sense that family is nowhere to be found.
The photo, titled “Rat and Mike,” was one of the many iconic images captured by Mark, the great photographer who died Monday at age 75. More than 30 years later, the picture endures as a portrait of lost youth and teen homelessness, a blunt reminder that some young people are fending for themselves on the streets and scrounging for their next meal.
“Rat and Mike” was the lead photo for the Life magazine photo essay, titled “Streets of the Lost,” but to trace the backstory of the subjects in the photo, you’d have to start in the Sacramento area. The two teens known as “Rat and Mike” were runaways from Orangevale who traded their bedrooms for a life of dumpster diving and spare-changing on Seattle’s streets.
“Rat” emerged as a key character in 1984’s “Streetwise,” an Academy Award-nominated documentary directed by Mark’s husband, Martin Bell. “Rat” speaks briefly of his origins in the Sacramento area, how he’d run away from home after being busted for selling marijuana and fearing the wrath of his father. By the time “Streetwise” was being filmed, “Mike” was locked up in juvenile hall for an undisclosed reason, and his buddy, “Rat,” was bent on breaking him out.
Now, “Rat” is 48. His real name is Rich, but prefers to keep a low profile and asks not to disclose his last name. He made it off those Seattle streets and works for a Sacramento tow truck company. He’s married, a father and grandfather, a working man who left his street days long ago.
Sometimes, he still thinks of his days as a runaway and how much Mark meant to him. He cried upon hearing the news of Mark’s death.
“It’s hard,” said Rich. “Her and Martin were like family. Times got a little rough for me after ‘Streetwise,’ but she was there for me. She was a great person, and I miss her immensely.”
Mark’s ability to gain the trust and confidence of her subjects, allowing her access to otherwise closed worlds, was part of her brilliance. Runaways by nature are leery of adults, and a grown-up with a camera could just as easily be an undercover cop. But Mark was adept at connecting with these young people and capturing the complexities of their lives.
An accompanying “Streetwise” photo book finds Mark capturing the tender moments and blunt drama of street life. For all the sadness that surrounds the runways in “Streetwise,” with tales of escaping from broken homes, abuse and alcoholic parents, Mark finds glimmers of carefree youth: kids making each other laugh with goofy faces, or clutched in puppy love embraces. After all, they’re still kids. But the dark side can make your heart sink, the scenes of rummaging in trash bins to find food, the teens prostituting themselves on Pike Street.
“It was like a ray of sunshine in the dark,” Rich said about “Streetwise.” “It’s a downer when you’re on the streets, and doing things you’re not feeling good about just to survive. But all of us were just kids doing our thing. We had fun showing how we lived even though it sucked.”
Sensitivity and trust led to a lifetime of unforgettable images, whether her camera was focused on the fringes of society or movie stars. The Philadelphia native looked for the humanity found in places that others might normally not want to see, including mental wards, Indian slums and brothels, and impoverished communities in Kentucky. Mark also captured the magic of lighthearted moments, including a 2012 portrait series on high school proms. She was also a longtime photographer on film sets, where she captured actors at their most candid, like Marlon Brando on the set of “Apocalypse Now” with a giant beetle on his bald head.
But “Streetwise” remains Mark’s signature work. She didn’t forget about the kids once the documentary had its run, and continued to photograph Erin “Tiny” Blackwell, a key “Streetwise” subject, over the decades. Mark and Bell had been working on a follow-up titled “Streetwise: Tiny Revisited.”
Rich knows he was lucky to find a better life and reports that his pal “Mike” also lives in the Sacramento area. Many of the fellow “Streetwise” kids didn’t make it out alive, including Dewayne Pomeroy, a street buddy of Rich’s who committed suicide during the production of the film. Lou Ellen “Lulu” Couch was stabbed to death in a street fight about a year after the documentary was released. Roberta Joseph Hayes was murdered by the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway.
“I found my calling in the tow truck industry, and it’s been gravy ever since,” said Rich. “I have a beautiful wife, beautiful children and grandchildren. It got to a point in my life where I was actually able to change it. The streets can send you in a certain direction if you can’t turn it around.”
But now, Rich feels the sadness of missing Mark, wishing she’d had the chance to meet his family. Like so many of her other subjects, Mark didn’t want to just preserve moments on film, but build an irreplaceable bond.
“She was not only a great photographer but an awesome influence on anyone’s life,” said Rich. “She took all of us in like family. She never judged who we were or what we did. Anyone she touched, you can bet their life was changed in some way.”