Photographs, Film, and Video, Publications

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark and Filmmaker Martin Bell Go to Prom

What will I wear? Who will be my date? Should we rent a limo?  With prom season approaching, these are questions going through American teenagers’ minds.

This all-American experience of going to prom marks the end of high school and the beginning of adulthood. Between 2006 and 2009, documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark traveled to 13 high schools to produce Prom, just released by Getty Publications, a fascinating look at dozens of teens from a diverse range of backgrounds on this memorable night.

Mark intentionally chose schools representing varied socioeconomic situations—including an exclusive private academy in Pacific Palisades, an urban public school in Newark, an upper-middle-class suburban school in Austin, and the pediatric ward at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center—to explore the similarities and differences in prom traditions. For example, white middle-class young women in Pittsburgh bought their similar looking dresses at the same local department store, while African American women had custom dresses made, each one a unique creation.

Spread from Prom by Mary Ellen Mark, published by Getty Publications

Two plates from Prom, newly published by Getty Publications. At left, Donald R. Lewis Jr. and Lakia M. Wilcher, Newark, New Jersey, 2006. At right, Samantha Toet and Alyssa Smith, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2008. Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

Using a six-foot-tall, 250-pound Polaroid Land 20 x 24 camera, which required special technicians to operate, Mark set up a photography studio at each prom she attended. Her interns scoured the dance floor for interesting subjects.  After being photographed, the students went to another studio where they were interviewed for a documentary by Mark’s husband, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Martin Bell.  On the film, the students talk about their dates, their high school experiences, and speculate on their futures. You can see a sneak peek of the film at the top of the post.

Quotations from the filmed interviews punctuate the book, which also includes a DVD of the documentary. Some of the students’ statements are comical, while others are deeply touching. The result is a captivating and revealing document of American youth at the beginning of the 21st century.

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      It’s been 125 years since Van Gogh’s death, today we celebrate his life’s work.

      5 Ways to See Van Gogh’s Irises

      Through observations, visitor conversations, and some sneaky eavesdropping, we’ve compiled the top 5 ways people enjoy this painting.

      1. In a Crowd
        One of the most obvious ways that people see the painting is in a crowd. The gallery is almost always filled, and you might have to wait before you can get up close. The anticipation builds as you start in the back row, and slowly move until you are close enough to see the brushstrokes of Van Gogh’s thick paint.

      2. Online
        David from Colorado said that this was his first visit, but he had already seen the painting online. In addition to being available through the Getty’s Open Content program, the painting is often seen on social media. Just search #irises on Instagram for a taste of the painting’s popularity. 

      3. Alone
        If you arrive right at 10 a.m. when the museum opens, the quiet gallery provides a perfect backdrop to really examine the painting. Solitude and seclusion gives the gallery a sense of intimacy. 

      4. Multiple Times
        Repeat visits can give rise to multiple interpretations. Is it a melancholy or joyous painting? Expressive or depressive? 

      5. Internationally
        Visitors from all across the world viewed this famous Van Gogh. In just one hour you can hear multiple languages—French, Italian, Chinese, Korean, German, and more. Irises seems to rise above cultural boundaries—a Dutch painting inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints—to strike an emotional resonance amongst all viewers. 

      What is your favorite lens to view Van Gogh’s work through? 


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