Mary Ellen Mark’s Ward 81:  Art at the Expense of Social Documentary (Master’s Thesis, May 2013)

In February of 1976, the photographer Mary Ellen Mark (American, b. 1940) and her friend, social scientist and writer Dr. Karen Folger Jacobs (American, b. 1940?) entered Oregon State Hospital’s secure ward for mentally ill women as temporary residents.  Unlike most of her journalistic activities, Mark did not intend to photograph the patients for purposes of a magazine story; in her interview with Ronald H. Bailey for the magazine American Photographer in June of 1978, the photographer stated that, “Instead of the 1-2-3-4 of a picture story, I was interested in doing pictures that would stand alone.”[1]

This paper will demonstrate that Mary Ellen Mark’s Ward 81 (1976) photographic series is a visual marker of the popular interest in the United States in the 1960’s and 70’s around mental illness, as supported by the photographs of other photographers, work in other disciplines—literature, feature and documentary film, and philosophy—plus independent advocacy and public policy.  More importantly, this thesis will explore Mark’s use of the documentary mode as a form of artistic production.  While the project was realized via the tradition of social documentary, the photographer subsequently pursued only fine art venues for the printed images, in addition to realizing a book, as opposed to using the photographs to educate, advocate or illustrate a story about mental illness or psychiatric healthcare.  (Read more)


1. Ronald H Bailey, “Ward 81: Mary Ellen Mark’s poignant scrapbook,” American Photographer, June, 1978,