Mary Ellen Mark's new photo essay details annual teen rite of passage

Charlottesville High School prom night 2008, as captured in the new photo-essay Prom by Mary Ellen Mark. 

The prom is a major event in a teenager’s life. Arguably, the girls more than the boys, look forward to it all year. They obsess over what to wear and how they’ll do their hair. The guys, whether they admit it or not, get anxious over whether their crush will say “yes” to being their date. When prom arrives, and everyone is styled up, the next step in the ritual is to get a photo taken as a lasting memento.

Looking at the images in Mary Ellen Mark’s new photographic essay, Prom (April 2012, J. Paul Getty Museum), it’s eerie how closely the event approximates some kind of fleeting marriage. Maybe it’s some precursor of what’s to come as they step into an adult world? Many of the teenagers in Mark’s portraits already appear to be experiencing some grown-up issues—pregnancy, love, cancer—heady stuff. Looking back on the project, Mark has a brighter perspective. “I was very moved by the optimism of the youth,” she said. Mark is known worldwide for her commercial photographs, exhibitions, and documentary photo books including Seen Behind the Scene, which features her work as a unit photographer on such movie sets as Network, Apocalypse Now, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This is her 18th book and is accompanied by a documentary directed by her husband Martin Bell.

Prom features 129 black and white portraits shot between 2006 and 2009, during which Mark visited 13 high schools from Newark to Cape Cod to here in Charlottesville. Diverse student populations were a prerequisite when it came to selecting locations. Charlottesville had “a lot of bold kids who were really ‘out there’.” Yet, it was traditional enough to remind her of her own prom in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. “Most of the high schools had their proms at a big hotel or some other place, where Charlottesville High School actually had their prom at the high school, which I really liked,” said Mark.

To photograph the students, she used a 6′, 240 pound Polaroid 20×24 Land Camera. Only seven still exist. With a 20×24, there are no negatives—each image is a final print. “You have to make a decision right away. The film is very expensive, so you can’t overshoot. You make a decision about the scale, the picture, and what you want and you shoot that,” said Mark. She favors the 20×24 because the photo becomes “a beautiful object that’s very much about detail.”

In Prom, that detail is depicted in the eyes, since the majority of students aren’t smiling in their pictures. This is intentional since Mark prefers natural, real expressions in her portrait subjects. “If someone is just smiling for the camera, its kind of a fake smile and it always looks that way. So if someone bursts out laughing and it’s a real smile then it’s fine. But I never say ‘smile’,” she said. More personal expression can be seen in the styles of dress. From traditional prom gowns and funky thrift shop finds to the unique camouflage dress with stud embellishments or the striking white tuxedo and Mohawk hairdo.

Prom captures the diversity of America’s student body—and yet, each student could have attended any of the other schools. They are all the same and different at once. What Mark’s photo essay accomplishes is to ask what’s going on behind their eyes, which have already seen a lot. You wonder, “What were they thinking—in that instant?”


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