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The photographer and the prostitute

At @NortonMuseum, Mary Ellen Mark's "Streetwise Revisited" follows teenage prostitute's path to middle age.

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark met 13-year-old prostitute Tiny on a spring evening in 1983 Seattle, when two teenagers pulled up to the curb outside a discotheque. As they exited a station wagon taxi glammed in heavy makeup, tight sweaters and jeans, Mark greeted them, flashed a warm smile and explained who she was: a photojournalist on assignment for Life magazine. She wanted to follow them and take pictures.

Tiny, the street name of Erin Blackwell, would become the star subject in a Life magazine portrait of Seattle's vagrant youth, a cover story about runaway urchins who resorted to drugs, theft and turning tricks to survive in a place that, by 1983, was declared the most livable city in America. Mark's assignment evolved into a book and an Academy Award-nominated documentary, "Streetwise."

It also spawned a 30-year friendship between Mark and Tiny, recalled in the 60-photograph exhibit "Tiny: Streetwise Revisited," opening Thursday, Dec. 10, at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Mark assembled the show before her death in May, chronicling in intimate black-and-white photos a cycle of hardship and pain, spanning Tiny's homeless teenage years, drug addiction, motherhood and middle age.

Before her death, Mark spent 50 years shooting subjects on society's fringes, people in mental institutions, circuses and leprosy wards, earning along the way three Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. But Tiny, sporting a feathered mullet framing a thin, pale face, and a mouth that seemed permanently frozen in a frown, struck Mark immediately as an "incredible character, so alive and honest," the photographer writes in the catalog to "Streetwise Revisited," which also carries essays by authors John Irving and Isabel Allende. "The camera was meant for her, and I knew it immediately. She was a star."

With her filmmaker husband, Martin Bell, Mark revisited Tiny, and documented her evolving story, more often than any other subject.

"Tiny was just this wonderfully visual, beautiful, interesting subject who allowed [Mark] access for all this time," says Melissa Harris, Mark's close collaborator on the catalog and editor in chief of the Aperture Foundation, which loaned out the photos. "Tiny was so engaging, and as her own story evolved with substance abuse, her honesty continued. It must've been very appealing for a storyteller, and Mary Ellen is a great storyteller."

If Tiny sounds like a tragic figure, Harris says, Mark's photos suggest the opposite. There is Tiny gazing out a window in juvenile detention; lying on a sofa at age 15, pregnant with her first child, Daylon; a 19-year-old Tiny in the bedroom, her hair mussed, her mind numbed by crack addiction; and Tiny captured midargument with her mother, Pat, who raises her fist threateningly. But in every candid photograph, her face is also defiant and tough, someone Mark would hardly call a pushover, Harris says.

"Tiny is a tough cookie, and does what she wants to do," Harris says. "People may see this expectation that Tiny is having a devastating life. She's not. She's having a tough life. But there's an innate intelligence that comes through, and she's an incredible survivor."

Harris suspects Mark was hooked on Tiny for the long haul the moment she witnessed the birth of Daylon, an "extraordinary moment in Tiny's young life."

Also found in these photos, says the Norton's photography curator Tim Wride, are universal themes of survival, blue-collar life and family.

"There's something to relate to in all of these photographs," Wride says. "We can all relate to kids and the dysfunctional family and doing the best we can. What happens is we see how this family tries to get along, just surviving on the street, get mitigated by circumstances and bad choices each of us make in our lives."

"Tiny: Streetwise Revisited — Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark" will open with a reception at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10, at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., in West Palm Beach. The exhibit will close March 20. Admission costs $5-$12. Call 561-832-5196 or go to Norton.org

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