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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      …”the clarity of the cold carnation of old skin, the creases of the smile, the folds made by the passage of time; the powerful pleating of the forehead…”

      The detail of his wrinkles, blood vessels, and moles is a realistic rendering uncommon in formal portraiture of the time. This was made by a friend.

      Portrait of Louis de Silvestre, about 1753, Maurice-Quentin de la Tour. J. Paul Getty Museum.

      08/31/14

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