Whether or not you went, your senior prom was undoubtedly a big deal. Even at my too-cool arts high school, senior prom was planned and discussed months in advance. Finding a date was always dramatic; with girls drawing up mental pro/con lists of any boy they would consider and couples spent hundreds of dollars on limos, dresses, and hotel rooms. A bad prom is not just another unfortunate high school memory; it is a night that American society will always remind you of. If you went, the senior prom was either tragic or blissful, and if you stayed home to prove a point, you will always wonder what the night would have been like.
Mary Ellen Mark’s latest photography series Prom documents this euphoric night in thirteen high schools throughout the United States. Mark’s images mimic the traditional format of prom photographs: couples stand together against a backdrop looking either ecstatically happy or absolutely miserable. In contrast with the garishly tacky color prom photos, Mark’s are shot strictly in black and white using a massive 20x24 Polaroid Land Camera. The images have a slightly washed-out and ghostly aesthetic typical of Mark’s past work. Mark has typically photographed people living on the fringes of society, and it is obvious in Prom that she is most drawn to couples that appear out of place either within their surroundings or with one another. These haunting portraits are contrasted with lively, often joyous interviews shot and compiled by the filmmaker Martin Bell (Mark’s husband). In the film, couples and individuals divulge their hopes for the nights, dreams for the future, and feverish anticipation to leave high school.
The Prom photographs are oftentimes uncomfortable to look at, yet there is something familiar about the adolescent awkwardness made obvious by an unforgiving camera. Ironically, the photographs make me sad that I did not take a tacky, posed photo in front of a background covered in airbrushed twinkling stars the night of my senior prom. Whether or not you had a good night, that camera freezes time in its place, making the event appear momentarily blissful. These photographs change the way we remember the night, and Mark’s photographs remind us why, despite its obvious unimportance in the course of a lifetime, the senior prom will always be a big deal.
-Gabriela June Tully Claymore
Mary Ellen Mark’s Prom Trailer: