It was those photos of her. She fell somewhere between Linda Manz’s hardscrabble tomboy in Out of The Blue and Diane Lane’s glamorous punk Corinne Burns in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. This pretty girl had a coolness to her. She was young, just a teenager, but she looked mature beyond her years. She had that black dress, matching gloves, and a pillbox hat with a veil. They brought out her femininity, as she commonly wore jeans, a James Dean red windbreaker, and a hat to conceal her gender-neutral Joan Jett shag haircut. The funereal garb suggested something solemn, but it was, in fact, a Halloween costume: the dress was from a second-hand store, and she found the hat right off her turf of Pike Street in Seattle, Washington.
These photos of Erin Blackwell, or Tiny as she is commonly remembered, made her the most indelible real-life subject of photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and later Mark’s husband, Martin Bell, in the Academy Award-nominated documentary film Streetwise. To a small group of people, Tiny was and remains a star. She and the other kids of Pike Street accelerated into the roles of grown ups: they were underaged sex workers, hustlers, criminals, and drug addicts who played into the fantasies of others to get what they wanted, with occasional glimmers of dreams that only childhood innocence could offer.
Streetwise’s shoddy availability over the years made it feel like a treasured bootleg by your favorite punk artist. If you ever saw it, it was on VHS. Seeing it always felt experiential, leaving an imprint of real lives so removed from your own, so raw they could never leave your mind. The incredible restoration by Janus Films somehow gives the film even more potency. The richness of textures and colors of Bell’s 16mm film stock, clearly from another time, now has an added intimacy. Sincere and subversive, the film was an analog object to me and my fellow Streetwise disciples, and the poor quality of those images could create a barrier, but this restoration does not. You feel like you are in the diner with Tiny and her mom, you feel like you are in the juvenile detention cell where Rat visits Tiny, and you feel yourself among the people in the street gawking as Lulu talks back to cops.
I always had an almost paternalistic impulse to know what happened to every kid in Streetwise: who made it, who did not. I was born after the film was made, more a child of the digital age, and with that, reliant on internet searches to fill in the gaps of the subjects, who by their nature slipped through the cracks of systems their whole lives. I felt my heart sink finding out what happened to the butch lesbian street protector Lou Ellen “Lulu” Couch, stabbed to death while defending a girl from a violent man not long after the film’s release. Learning Roberta Joseph Hayes was a victim of the Green River Killer felt surreal, two separate worlds clashing together into a single tragedy. I remember my long sigh reading that brawling, tough sex worker Patti died from HIV/AIDS complications. We don’t know the whereabouts of Kim, the Ally Sheedy look-alike. Same goes for the garbage dump-diving Rat, who had dreams of going into the Air Force. There just was not enough amateur web sleuthing to reassure me that these people were okay.
Tiny was a different story. She was, even to her own surprise, alive, and her story continues to be captured long after Streetwise. There were more photos by Mark, television news magazine specials, and now, Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, with Tiny now a mother of ten children and a grandmother in her forties.
Streetwise was notable for its non-judgmental and unobtrusive camera, producing keen observations of the inner lives of teenagers. Bell built on Mark’s commissioned work about Seattle street kids for LIFE Magazine: “Streets of the Lost.” (“Every city in America has them,” was the famous piece’s opening.) Mark said the assignment was just three weeks long, but when she met Tiny outside of some night club, she immediately knew that she would become the center of her project. Mark’s photography career had two facets: her photojournalism – which captured people on the margins with searing realism – and her work in Hollywood as a production portraitist on some of the most famous films of the 1970s. Mark had shot a lot of movie stars, so it is not surprising that the same eye could sense this underaged sex worker had her own kind of star quality.
Mark, who died in 2015, would for years chronicle Tiny’s life story in photographs: a life of drug addiction, poverty, and the appearance again and again of child services. It has been a life without much pretense, without much love, and without much normalcy, but Tiny was acting the only way she knew how, because of what she saw around her.
Watching Tiny in motion was to see a child living too fast. Tiny is seen chain-smoking, her voice so much deeper than her still-youthful face, strutting with the confidence of a grown woman. Tiny’s alcoholic, absent mother remarks that Tiny has grown from “fourteen to twenty-one” since landing on the streets. She does not so much as disapprove of her daughter’s life choices. Her shocked reaction to what Tiny, illiterate and a fifth grade dropout, was doing for a living does not convey rage, anger, or even hurt. It is closer to resignation and bewilderment. Tiny is out there, cultivating her sex worker persona, to get hers. She knows her youth is a fetish for older johns, whom she calls pervs, but her eyes are on the money and she gets that however she can.
But Tiny did not do facades. Bell shows Tiny breaking the fourth wall, acknowledging the camera with a wink in a candid moment. Where her mother would give sugar-coated, vague descriptions of their living situation and her relationship with her daughter, Tiny would be transparent about her mother’s alcoholism, her distrust of her stepfather, why they lived in such-and-such place, and then tell us what we could not see on camera. She had no secrets.
Still, the kids in Streetwise are not completely jaded. They still have dreams, some of which feel outsized, but they all feel like reactions to their parents’ shortcomings. Tiny cannot wait to grow up, and Rat remarks that she keeps talking about wanting kids and getting married, even though “she’s just a kid” herself. Therein lies the major contradiction: they operate in an adult world, but at the same time, they’re aware of their youth and they know their limits. “She just wants to get too serious,” Rat chuckles, their relationship more puppy love and playing house than anything.
Decades later, Tiny has gone from playing house to barely keeping her home together. Erin Blackwell today lives through an unbroken series of cycles, enduring multigenerational familial trauma and drug addiction, and relying on public institutions for survival. Her cagey, conflicted behavior mirrors her own mother’s. In Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, we now see Erin playing closer to the vest: We first find out about her methadone addiction from her daughter’s voiceover. Her three eldest children were put in foster care at some point, and old footage shows her complying with social services. These three children continue to be frustrated, hurt, and disconnected from her. They do not call her mother, nor do they feel much of a bond with her. To them, she’s Erin.
Daylon, Erin’s eldest, has become an addict – in his own words, to ‘stay normal’ – and a father himself. Another son, Rayshon, is the most rebellious one. Erin admits she was using drugs when pregnant with him, puts him on a short leash at home, and never hesitates to call the cops on him. There is a distance between them, and it is heartbreaking that the one genuine moment of affection for this mother and son is when there is a glass window between them, when Erin visits him in juvenile detention. She says she strove to make sure her children get what she did not. Though she states she made a mistake having kids at sixteen, she loves all of them and could not imagine not having a life without the kids she had.
At least half of her children have a present father, her husband Will, who fathered five of the children. Will, who is black, fills in Erin’s blindspots and tries to educate their children of the realities of being a person of color in America. But there is only so much patience and responsibility one person can take on, and Will is increasingly there for the children and not Erin.
Erin shows cracks in her aged reserve, such as in an argument with her eldest daughter Shawnie, who judges Erin’s parenting of the younger children. “It’s not up to you what I do!” Erin snipes. It is an incredible moment, something that on its face sounds more child-to-parent than parent-to-child. Erin has always been judged for who she is, but the judgment that matters most, and hits her hardest, is in her home, something she cannot walk away from.
Erin Blackwell has no regrets about being involved with Mark and Bell. She said to Mark in a 2005 interview, “... you’re like the parents that I never had.” The familial rapport between Blackwell and Mark is obvious in Tiny: Streetwise Revisited as they look over old photos. They talk about Rat, Lulu, the others, and what was happening when the cameras were off. Then they get to the photo that made Erin famous. “Everybody loves that picture. Why do you think they love it?” Mark asks her.
“I don’t know,” Blackwell answers softly.
“What do you think it symbolizes to people?”
“I don’t know,” she answers again.
Blackwell cannot really offer the perspective Mark wants from her. It’s not that Tiny is inarticulate – far from it. Blackwell seems to clam up, perhaps as a mode of self-preservation: imagining what other people think when they look at her puts her in too vulnerable a place. These films and photographs about her life have had a one-way entry point. People like myself have the privilege of seeing what this young girl has become over the years as she enters middle age. She would continue to be photographed, showing the damage, traumas, and struggles that came with growing up much too fast. And quite bravely, she let this documentation continue.
But those earlier photos and scenes of Streetwise she revisits are alien to most of her children. They know her as the woman who bore them, not somebody in LIFE Magazine or on display to this very day in museums and galleries. She is a complicated woman, still full of contradictions, still frank, and extremely aware of the judgment within her home, from the social services system, and from a culture who knew her first as that girl, forever Tiny, in the famous photo. What will be remembered most of Erin “Tiny” Blackwell is that glimpse of her at her most youthful, most performative. And yet, that snapshot is still unshakably real. It will never be replicated, and I will never forget it.