In the United States . . . a prom, short for promenade, is a formal (black-tie) dance, or gathering of high school students. It is typically held near the end of the senior year. —Wikipedia

I've always been interested in photographing traditions and customs—especially in America. The prom is an American tradition, a rite of passage that has always been one of the most important rituals of American youth. It is a day in our lives that we never forget—a day full of hopes and dreams for our future.

Before I started this project I photographed several proms around America in a documentary/caught-moment style of photography using medium-format and 35 mm cameras. I was fascinated by how the dress and behavior of the prom-goers reflected their socioeconomic and cultural differences. For example, at a prom for Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, middle-class white girls bought their dresses at the same local department store, while the African American girls had their own original ball gowns custom made. Their gowns were unique and surprising, while the store-bought dresses were very much alike.

The choice of prom partner was also revealing and sometimes unexpected, even amusing. All of us remember our prom dates. (I still exchange Christmas cards with mine.) One of the first proms I photographed was in 1986 at Gibbs Senior High School in St. Petersburg, Florida. My favorite image is of Brooke and Billy—obviously madly in love, dancing dreamily with eyes closed (fig. 1). The photograph, later published in a book called A Day in the Life of America (1986), summed up for me the essence of prom.

I've kept several photographs from my high school days. I was a cheerleader, then the head cheerleader. I still have all of those photographs. The one that has intrigued me the most is my own prom picture (fig. 2). There I am, my hair in a perfect pageboy, wearing pearls and high heels. I'm in a beautiful white dress with pink flowers. I have a corsage and a gold bracelet on my wrist. Behind me is Stuart, my prom date. He was not my boyfriend, just a good friend. He has a white jacket and a perfect little bow tie. (He ended up marrying one of my best friends from high school.) Both of us have big hopeful smiles. We were facing our perfect futures. The world was ours—or so we thought. This picture and the photo of Brooke and Billy are the two images that most inspired me to go on and do this in-depth project.

I always wondered what happened to Brooke and Billy. What are they doing now? Are they married to each other? What kind of work do they do? Do they have children? By incredible chance, a few days ago I got a note on my Facebook page from Brooke thanking me for taking her prom picture so many years ago. I immediately asked her to tell me what happened to her and Billy. I anxiously waited for her reply. She told me that they dated for two years. "He really was a super guy. He sang to me on TV when the local TV station interviewed us about A Day in the Life. . . . Probably the nicest guy I ever dated—besides my current husband." Because she was so young and curious she broke up with him. Years later they reconnected on Facebook and now keep in touch. Brooke is a mammography technologist in Florida. Billy is a police officer in St. Petersburg (which surprised Brooke because she thought he was too nice a guy for a job like that).

Ffteen years ago, I started working with a Polaroid 20x24 land camera. The camera is very large—approximately six feet tall, weighing 240 pounds. There are only five of these cameras in the world. We used two of them—one based in San Francisco, the other in New York—for the prom project. The camera needs a specially qualified technician to operate it since it's quite complicated and takes great skill to move it, manipulate the bellows for changes in magnification, adjust the lens, and load and process the chemistry and the paper. Each camera has its own personality, and the technicians that operate them have to understand the moods and quirks of the particular camera they're working with. I was very lucky because the three Polaroid technicians I worked with—John Reuter, Jennifer Trausch, and Tracy Storer—were brilliant. These cameras are also very special because each image they produce is unique. As with the small Polaroid cameras with which we are all familiar, each image from the Polaroid 20x24 camera is a final print with no negative. The entire process is a great challenge, but it's worth it. I love the immediacy of the photographs and the beautiful way the film renders detail.

My first big project with this camera was the book Twins (2003). The idea was to show not just the similarities but the subtle differences between twins—a task perfect for this camera. While I was making the photographs, my husband, Martin Bell, set up a studio in an adjoining tent where the twins were interviewed for a short film, also titled Twins.

After the completion of Twins I was looking for another project to photograph with the Polaroid 20x24 camera. The era of Polaroid was rapidly coming to an end, and I had to act quickly before the film was discontinued. Prom seemed like the perfect subject.

Although we had personal connections at some of the schools, we also did an incredible amount of work to find others—researching and calling hundreds of high schools to find the right ones. Diversity was our major goal. The schools needed to have the right mix of students, and the proms needed to be on nights that coordinated with our travel.

One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome was gaining access to the high schools. Before approaching any of the schools in New York City, for example, I needed to get permission from the Board of Education. This involved many phone calls, a lot of letter writing, and dealing with an ocean of bureaucracy. Even if we had a personal connection to a school, there were still challenges involved with getting permission to photograph at the prom itself.

We also had to get releases for each student photographed or interviewed. In some cases the students were old enough to sign for themselves, but in many cases they had to take the releases home, have them signed by a parent or guardian, and mail them back to us. Following up and collecting those releases took many months and countless phone calls.

In 2006, the first year of the project, I photographed three proms, two in the New York area and one in Philadelphia, which was the prom for my own alma mater, Cheltenham High School. After this first year—once I had photographs to show—it became easier to gain access to other schools. We also learned that often our best contact at a high school was the photography teacher. Once we had permission from the school, we then had to see if the prom venue could accommodate us (with enough space and electricity for two studios, one for photography and one for filming). Proms are seasonal—they occur between May and June—so logistically we had to start planning several months before.

Here are the high schools we photographed:
Malcolm X Shabazz High School, Newark, New Jersey, May 18, 2006. The population of Malcom X Shabazz is predomi-nately black. I was interested in getting permission from this school because I had photographed its spectacular marching band at the African American Day parade in Harlem. As at Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, many of the female students chose local designers to make their custom dresses, which were fabulous. One student, Taneya Hammer, said to me, "I had my dress designed because prom is a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Cheltenham High School, Wyncote, Pennsylvania, June 6, 2006. My own high school, Cheltenham High School, has a diverse student population. While I was photographing a graduating senior who was nine months pregnant, the principal of the school came to the studio to watch the photography in progress; I think he was a bit taken aback. One of the girls, Kate Carr, brought her boyfriend, Joe Moore, who was joining the Marines. He said to me, "After my training, I will know about the world and be more disciplined."

Tottenville High School, Staten Island, New York, June 16, 2006. Tottenville High School has more than 3,800 students. It was the largest high school I photographed, and there was a lot of security at the prom to make sure that everyone behaved perfectly. One of the cheerleaders said to me, "Boys are more laid back and not as judgmental as girls."

Saint Michael Academy, New York City, May 16, 2007. This very strict, Catholic, all-girl high school had its prom at a beautiful old mansion. There were some great characters at Saint Michael Academy. One of them was Toccarra Baguma, a girl I'll never forget. When I asked her if she wanted children, she said, "I haven't put kids in my schedule. Maybe when I'm forty, fifty, or sixty."

Fontbonne Hall Academy, Brooklyn, New York, May 25, 2007. These kids were especially excited to be at their prom. The art teacher, Len Bellinger, told them all about the Polaroid camera, so they really wanted to be photographed. One of the students, Kerry Murdoch, walked around with a cigarette holder and an unlit cigarette even though smoking was forbidden. When I asked her about it, she said, "I can't go a day without breaking a rule."

Riverview School, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, June 16, 2007. The honesty and candidness of these students won all of our hearts. One student, Keith Foster, said, "Prom is awesome. . . . I don't know why it's awesome."

Charlottesville High School, Charlottesville, Virginia, April 26, 2008.
I expected Charlottesville to be a conservative southern town, but I was surprised; there were a lot of bold kids who were really "out there." The king and queen of the prom, Will and Jane Mattimoe, are fraternal twins. Will said, "What's great about being a twin is that you have a friend in your grade every year. You always know someone."

MacArthur Senior High School, Houston, May 9, 2008
. At this Houston high school, which has a large Mexican American student population, I felt as if I were back in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I teach photography. The prom was almost canceled because there was a flood in the hotel the day of the prom. When I asked Rigoberto Campa whom he most admired he said, "My mom. She takes care of four children, and I can be a handful."

Westlake High School, Austin, Texas, May 10, 2008
. Austin's Westlake High School is an upper-middle-class suburban school. One of the students I photographed, Christina Chang, a girl with many academic accomplishments, asked me how old I was. When I told her, she said, "Oh, I hope you'll still be around when I run for president of the United States so you can vote for me."

Palisades Charter High School, Pacific Palisades, California, May 16, 2008
. This school in an afluent area of Los Angeles had an unusual mixture of students; some were very eccentric. When I asked one of the students, Grace Bush-Vineburg, what her plans were for the future, she said, "I want to have a sandwich shop or study music history."

Harvard-Westlake School, Los Angeles, May 17, 2008. Harvard-Westlake is a private school in Los Angeles. Some of the students come from great privilege. The school also gives scholarships to families who could never afford the tuition. The students were very worldly and confident. Siena Rosemarie Leslie told me that she was very excited about college—especially having late-night conversations about the meaning of life.

Ithaca High School, Ithaca, New York, June 21, 2008. Ithaca is a college town in upstate New York. Some of the students' parents teach at the local colleges. We had photographed several female gay couples in other schools, but here we encountered our first male gay couple, Alan Stern and Richard F. Daniels. Alan said, "This is the best relationship I've ever had. I came out in high school. Ithaca is very liberal."

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, May 17, 2009
. Every year Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center has a prom for the patients in the pediatric ward. I photographed it some years ago and decided to include it in this project. This was a fortuitous decision as I met eighteen-year-old Ashley Conrad, who was being treated for Ewing's sarcoma. She is strikingly beautiful and wise beyond her years.

This work spanned four years, from 2006 to 2009. We would arrive at the venue the morning of the prom and set up two studios, one for the 20x24 camera and another for the film interviews. All this preparation took the better part of a day. Once the prom started, a few of my interns would help me scout the dance floor for students who would be good candidates for me to photograph. They would take Polaroid Spectra photographs to show me, and from those I would intuitively choose couples. In some of the high schools a teacher would help preselect some couples. I was looking for students who represented a range of backgrounds, personalities, looks, and so on. We estimated twenty minutes per portrait, but sometimes it took longer, depending on the complexity of the lighting. For example, a very dark-skinned couple wearing bright white clothing would present a lighting challenge that had to be solved on the spot. The Polaroid 20x24 camera is complicated in the sense that you are taking a picture and making a print at the same time. You can't go back into a darkroom and make corrections. I tried to make at least three unique prints of each couple. We were very aware of our time limitations, since prom is only a few hours long. After the couples were photographed, we asked if we could interview them for the film. Different interviewers participated in the project, depending on our location. We developed a list of twenty questions that each interviewer used as the basis for their conversations with the students (see quotations from these interviews in the plate list at the back of this book). These questions plus the improvised responses form the narrative structure of the film. The result is a glimpse into America's future.

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.

—Mary Ellen Mark, 2011