My high-school senior class voted unanimously to skip our senior prom. It was a small private school; most of us had known one another since childhood—we couldn’t wait to graduate and get the hell out of there. The last thing we wanted—it really would have seemed insane—was to pair off and clutch each other as a turning, mirrored ball sprinkled us with coins of glittery light.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve remained fascinated with other people’s prom stories—the passions and disappointments, the heartbreaks and betrayals, the lives changed forever by evenings that ended with everyone puking all over the backseat of someone’s dad’s car. My friends’ memories continue to interest me, like stories about birthday parties and weddings, about all the rites and celebrations with which we mark the stages from cradle to grave. At the same time, when I read the news items that seem to appear every spring—students protesting some new prom dress-code or a ban on same-sex couples—I feel at once deeply sympathetic and utterly removed. Imagine anyone actually caring.
Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs of prom couples remind us why kids still care, and why adults of my generation continue to tell prom stories the way their fathers told war stories. They are accounts of early skirmishes on the battlefields of courtship and adulthood, fables about love and sex and social interaction that can be oddly prophetic of—or (often happily) unrelated to—the rest of the prom-goer’s life.
The first thing that strikes you is how much these pictures resemble wedding portraits. There’s that same pride and tightlipped determination, the same self-affirming staking of sexual territory, the same us-against-the world defiance, or isolation, or terror, sometimes depending simply on the viewer’s own mood, or experience, or the angle from which we view the image.
The photographs make us realize how much the prom is a rehearsal for a wedding. The future bride is practicing for a role that, despite all the apparent changes in our views of women and marriage, has remained remarkably unaltered—a role that is weirdly and totally retro. The prom queen is a lovely young woman at her moment of greatest glory, glamorous yet virginal, taking her first step onto a new stage of existence, accompanied by her handsome consort—the king, the gallant knight, or, as often the case seems to be, the bewildered bystander at the accident of his own life. How many of them are in love, in first love, how many of these passions will survive the night of the prom? How many of these matches were made by the simple need to find a prom date?
And still, how much thought and work has gone into these self-presentations! How much these couples want to transmit about who they are and how they see themselves, and how they imagine the adult life that will begin, on schedule, right after graduation! How much care has gone into the choice of gowns and suits, purses and corsages! How much time and money these young women have spent on their hair!
Joe Moore & Kate Carr, Cheltenham Prom, June 6, 2006.
Latosha Smith & Phillipe Azore, Cheltenham Prom, June 6, 2006.
In fact, as you look at these pictures, all sorts of questions about money keep rudely presenting themselves. How did those teenagers pay for those outfits? By saving their allowances, working after school, borrowing from their parents? None of them seem, from the looks of it, to be trust-fund kids with large discretionary incomes. All of which brings to mind the ways in which rites of passage such as the prom (and
the wedding, the baby shower, and even, alas, the funeral) have been so profitably commodified
by our culture.
The pressures of that culture— and of the reality of what it means to be an adult in any culture—are weighing so heavily on some of these young couples that you can watch the sheer strain pulling beneath the courage on their unlined faces. In a few cases, you can tell what challenges await them, sooner rather
than later. Joe Moore’s tux is a military uniform, and his date, Kate Carr, is beside him; both seem to be standing at dress-parade attention. Accompanied by Phillipe Azore, who is caught off-guard at a mournful moment that his marvelous tie and pocket square do little to soften, Latosha Smith is pregnant. Unsurprisingly, these couples—the ones whose immediate futures seem most freighted with responsibility—are the
least jaunty, the least playful in the gestures (or lack of them) with which they claim possession of one another.
Several of these pairs do appear to be having more fun. For some—Ursula Phillips and Gregg Whitlock, Jr., and Khalil Samad and Samantha Monte—that fun seems connected with youth and energy, sex and pride and affection. For others it may be more about the idea of prom night as a kind of theater, a one-night-only performance in which they are the stars. Even under the spinning lights, you can tell who the artists are.
With his plumed hat and modified zoot suit, a spiffy cane and two-tone wingtip shoes, Edward Manchavez is too cool by far to hide his consummate hipness in a rented tuxedo. He’s way handsome, and his
date, Rusalina Zvyagilskaya, is savvy enough to get it.
Like the other couples, Michael Glorioso and Eliza Wierzbinska have put a lot of time and thought into their look, but it’s a little harder to say what that look is exactly. Dramatic, a bit of a period piece, though again who knows what precisely that period is. And who cares, really? Like all the rest, they look great.
At the end of the day, this is the prom, and no one’s kidding around. After all, they’re still adolescents, not an age group whose members are willing (at least not on this night of all nights) to look homely, or awkward, or ordinary—not even in the service of irony, protest, or theater.
Like their subjects, Mary Ellen Mark’s prom photographs are communicative and touching. They tell us much about these borderline adults’ dreams and aspirations, about how these kids on the cusp of the rest of their lives imagine the unimaginable hours and years that will begin as soon as the mirrored ball and the music stop, and the decorations come down, and prom night, the only one they will ever have, is—to their joy and sorrow and wild relief—forever and finally over.
Michael Glorioso & Eliza Wierzbinska, Tottenville Prom, June 16, 2006.
Diana Lynn Dontis, Amanda Caruso, Hira Mir, and Jillian Popper, Tottenville Prom, June 16, 2006.