the new york times
prom night
Exposures Mary Ellen Mark
April 1, 2012
Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark

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Sheena Fowler and Rochelle Parchment, Wyncote, PA., 2006

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Christina Chang, Austin, Tex., 2008

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Brittany Weintraub and Anthony Bellino, Staten Island, N.Y., 2006

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Michael Gonzales and Veronica Castillo, Houston, 2008

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Tyler Dorn and Lauren Trenchard, Ithaca, N.Y., 2008

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Jania Sims and Khalif White, Newark, 2006

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At a New York hospital, 2009, Ashley Conrad, center, and Sandra Liu, right with friend

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Breayanna Robinson and Shannon Kinnard. Pacific Palisades, Calif., 2008

The prom is 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.

I’ve kept several photographs from my high school days, including some from my time as a cheerleader, but the image that has intrigued me the most is my own prom picture. 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.

Over the years, beginning in 1986, I photographed several proms around America in a documentary style of photography using medium-format and 35-millimeter cameras I was fascinated by how the dress and behavior of the promgoers reflected their cultural differences.

For example, at a prom for Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, middle-class white girls bought their dresses at a local department store, while the African-American girls had their gowns custom-made. Their gowns were unique, while the store-bought dresses were alike.

Seventeen years ago, I started working with a Polaroid 20-by-24-inch Land camera. The camera is very large—about 6 feet tall, weighing 240 pounds. There are only five in the world. 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. With a 20-by-24 camera, you are taking a picture and making a print at the same time.

Each camera has its own personality, and the technicians who operate them have to understand the moods and quirks of the particular camera. As with the small Polaroid cameras that we are all familiar with, each image from the 20-by-24 camera is a final print with no negative. The entire process is a great challenge, but it’s worth it.

This work spanned four years, from 2006 through 2009. We would arrive at the site on the morning of the prom and set up two studios, one for the 20-by-24 camera and another for filming interviews. Once the prom started, my interns would help me scout the dance floor for students who would be good candidates to photograph. They would take Polaroid Spectra instant photographs to show me and from those I would choose couples.

In some high schools a teacher would help preselect couples. I was looking for students who represented a range of backgrounds, personalities, looks and so on. We estimated 20 minutes a portrait, but sometimes it took longer, depending on the complexity of the lighting. 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 a prom is only a few hours long.

Looking at my own prom photograph reminds me of how significant that moment was—and how fleeting life is. A while back I was at the outdoor flea market in Chelsea. One of the vendors was selling secondhand clothes. There on a hanger was the same dress I wore to my prom. To this day, I regret not buying it.

END.