Photographer Mary Ellen Mark Goes to Prom at Museum of Art

Exhibition reflects a coming of age, from Wyncote, PA to Pacific Palisades, CA

Prom: Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
(July 1—October 28, 2012)

From Hollywood insiders to Florida retirees, much of Mary Ellen Mark’s work explores the many facets of American culture. In her latest collection of photographs, Mark captures a quintessential adolescent experience, the American prom. Depicting youth at the outset of the 21st century, Prom presents 60 black and white photographs of teens in festive dress at their most anticipated event of the year. Taken at 13 high school formals across the country between 2006 and 2009, Mark’s pictures represent not only geographic and demographic diversity, but a broad spectrum of relationships, body types, and aspirations. In this series and exhibition, Mark chronicles a vivid rite of passage that is shared by Americans with otherwise remarkably different lives.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is the first public venue of photographs from Mark’s Prom series. The exhibition will also include a 33-minute video entitled Prom, made by Mark’s husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, which captures interviews with many of the photographed subjects, bringing their voices and thoughts into contact with their pictures.

“Portraiture is the dominant element in Mark’s great body of work,” notes Peter Barberie, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center. “Her Prom series mines the democratic potential of photography and the democratic experience of the high school prom by honoring each of its subjects with a beautiful and formal large-scale portrait. Together the pictures show us regional, ethnic, and class differences, with a sensitive and empathetic eye for each situation.”

The photographs in Prom were all taken with a 20-by-24-inch Polaroid Land Camera, which makes large-format prints. Six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, only five of these cameras exist and they require specially qualified technicians to assist with a session. Each image produced is unique and the final prints have no negatives.

The pictures in Prom focus largely on couples of every stripe, but also include siblings, individuals, and pairs or groups of friends. Some couples embrace while others stand side by side, touching or with distance between them. There are smiles and solemn expressions, kisses and longing gazes. There are demonstrations of similar styles of dress and poses that show off dresses and figures while captured dancing shows celebration and elation. Every picture reflects a coming of age.

The photographs were taken at the following high schools (in chronological order):

  • Malcom X Shabazz High School, Newark, NJ; May 18, 2006
  • Cheltenham High School, Wyncote, PA (Mark alma mater); June 6, 2006
  • Tottenville High School, Staten Island, NY; June 16, 2006
  • Saint Michael Academy, New York City; May 16, 2007
  • Fontbonne Hall Academy, Brooklyn, NY; May 25, 2007
  • Riverview School, Cape Cod, MA; June 16, 2007
  • Charlottesville High School, Charlottesville, VA; April 26, 2008
  • MacArthur Senior High School, Houston, TX; May 9, 2008
  • Westlake High School, Austin, TX; May 10, 2008
  • Palisades Charter High School, Pacific Palisades, CA; May 16, 2008
  • Harvard-Westlake School, Los Angeles, CA; May 17, 2008
  • Ithaca High School, Ithaca, NY; June 21, 2008
  • Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY; May 17, 2009

Prom: Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark is presented in conjunction with the J. Paul Getty Museum’s publication of the book by the same name, which includes 160 prom portraits and the DVD of Prom, which features interviews with a selection of the portrait subjects that were recorded at the same time Mark made her photographs. Organized by themes, the students candidly discuss their outfits and dates and their expectations for the evening. They talk about their daily lives at home and school, their families, their grades and homework habits. When asked about their futures, some have a desire to follow in their parents’ footsteps and others would prefer to break familial patterns. Some address the need to achieve more than their parents or to give back to those who supported them. They consider burgeoning adulthood, love, and believing in themselves and each other.

Examples from subjects’ interviews are found throughout the book:

“I told her, like, ‘I ordered a corsage. Did you order a boutonniere?’ And the text message I got back was, ‘A what?’” – Miranda Banks, Charlottesville, VA

“One of my friends got stabbed. The whole school was in mourning. He is supposed to be here now. But he’s here in spirit.” – LaToya Grant, Newark, NJ

“I haven’t put kids in my schedule. Maybe when I’m forty, fifty, or sixty.” – Toccarra Baguma, New York City

“I came into freshman year thinking I could change the world, or at least leave Westlake a little bit better than it was when I came in. I feel like I’ve accomplished that.” – Christina Chang, Austin. TX

“We’ve been called the God Squad. We’ve been taught to love everyone, everyone around us, everyone at our school, just embrace everyone for what they are.” – Carley Gunter, Austin, TX

One of the schools represented in this series is Mark’s alma mater, Cheltenham High School in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. In the artist’s preface for the book, she includes her own prom photograph from 1958, stating, “I’ve always been interested in photographing traditions and customs—especially in America. The prom…is a rite of passage that has always been one of the most important rituals of American youth…Looking at my own prom photograph reminds me of how significant that moment was—and how fleeting life is. A few years ago I was at the outdoor flea market in Chelsea. One of the vendors was selling secondhand clothes. There on a hanger was the exact same dress I wore to my prom. To this day, I regret not buying it.”

A Pennsylvania native, Mark (born 1940), has achieved acclaim through her numerous books, exhibitions and editorial magazine work, and her images of diverse cultures have become landmarks in the field of documentary photography. She is a contributing photographer to The New Yorker and has published photo-essays and portraits in such publications as LIFE, New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair. Her 17 publications include Ward 81 (Simon & Schuster, 1979), Falkland Road (Knopf, 1981), Mother Teresa’s Mission of Charity in Calcutta (Friends of Photography, 1985), Streetwise (second printing, Aperture, 1992), Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years (Bulfinch, 1991), Portraits (Motta Fotografica, 1995 and Smithsonian, 1997), Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey (Aperture, 1999), Twins (Aperture, 2003), Exposure (Phaidon, 2005), and Seen Behind the Scene (Phaidon, 2009). Mark received a B.F.A. in Painting and Art History from the University of Pennsylvania in 1962 and a M.A. in Photojournalism from the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania in 1964.

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