Richmond Times Flair
June 1st 2008
By Daniel Newman
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark

Mark aims her camera at proms

Mary Ellen Mark still has the picture taken of her when she went to her high school prom. "I thought enough of it to keep the photograph. I thought it was funny," said Mark, 68, now a widely renowned photographer. "All of the things that we work on come out of the experiences we have in our lives," said Mark. And so the thing she is working on now is a series of photographs of students going to their prom.

Mark will be one of the featured photographers at Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville June 12‑14. She will talk about her art June 12 at 7 p.m. at the Paramount Theater, and will exhibit pictures from the prom series at the McGuffey Art Center. Mark, who counts a Guggenheim Fellowship among a slew of awards, has published 16 books, including "Twins" in 2001 and "Mother Teresa's Mission of Charity in Calcutta" in 1985. She is known for her insightful portraits of celebrities from Woody Allen to Lorena Bobbitt, and of circus performers in Third World countries. Now she is turning her lens on proms. "It's an American rite of passage.

It's a ritual; it's specifically American. I've photographed them before, but I decided to do it with a large camera," she said from her studio in New York.

The camera is a large‑format Polaroid, a massive machine that produces prints that are 20‑by‑24 inches ‑ on paper that is no longer being manufactured. The prints, each of which is unique, are particularly vivid.

"There is something about this that gave it the sense of detail that I wanted .... It's all about detail," Mark said.

For her latest book about proms, Mark and her crew went to 12 proms around the country, including one at Charlottesville High School.

"In the end, I've found you can't definitely say, 'Oh, that's Virginia, that's Texas, that's New York.' It's more different ethnically. In Houston, it was very Mexican, and they have a different way of dress. They have a real sense of style, and the African‑American kids have their own sense of style, a lot of white tuxes. The Mexican kids have lots of ruffles. In Newark [N.J.], the kids made their own clothes."

In Charlottesville, she was struck mostly by the diversity of the students, she said.

Accompanying her on her travels was her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, who shot documentary footage of her taking the prom pictures. The resulting documentary film will be included on DVD in the book about proms, she said.

Mark used to specialize mainly in documentary photography, taking pictures of things as they happen. But magazines have changed, and now they look primarily for portraiture. So she has had to learn to find her truth in portraits.

It's the same truth she finds in all of her photography.

"It's about people. It's about catching a moment in time. It's definitely about people. They fascinate me. I don't know why. Whether they're good or bad, they fascinate me."

3 days of peace, love, photography

Stories by Daniel Neman
Times‑Dispatch Staff Writer

A photograph is light, shadow and time, capturing life as it exists for an instant.

Look3 Festival of the Photograph, June 12‑14 in Charlottesville, is an event for photographers and lovers of photography. Internationally known photographers will talk about their work, pictures will be projected on screens and on buildings ‑ and even hang from trees.

And the pictures to be shown aren't just by professionals. Amateur photographers can bring and display their best work, too.

This year's event is the second one held in Charlottesville, but it grew out of an idea that began years ago. Photographer Nick Nichols, now an editor at large with National Geographic magazine, used to hold get‑togethers for his fellow photographers when he lived in California.

They would show their slides on a sheet in his backyard in Berkeley, and anyone who was interested could come and watch. The last time Nichols did it, he had 500 people camped out on his lawn.

Now that he is living in Charlottesville, Nichols is taking that idea and expanding it. Along with festival co‑executive director Jessica Nagle, he is presenting what the festival refers to as peace, love and photography.


The festival's centerpiece events are three conversations with nationally important photographers.

Mary Ellen Mark will talk to NPR reporter Alex Chadwick on June 12 about her work. Her current project is taking pictures of couples at proms, including Charlottesville High School's.

"People expose their personalities through posed photographs," Nichols said. "When Mary Ellen gets the couples in front of the camera, that's when the magic takes place ‑ the way she gets them to hold hands or turn to the camera."

On June 13, Chadwick will talk to Joel-Peter Witkin, whom Nichols described as being particularly famous in the '80s. "He photographed freaks, body parts, things from the morgue. They're incredibly beautiful still lifes, until you look at them and see what is in there .... They're exquisitely beautiful, but very, very disturbing," Nichols said.

On June 14, Time Magazine director of photography MaryAnne Golon will talk to James Nachtwey. "He's by far the world's pre‑eminent conflict photographer of our time. The last 30 years, he's photographed every bad thing that has happened. Every flood, every famine, every war .... His work is artful and relentless. It is pretty heavy. It is not light fare," Nichols said.

Undersea photographs by Flip Nicklin "the world's pre‑eminent whale photographer," according to Nichols ‑ will hang on banners from trees throughout the Downtown Mall. Another public event will be the projection of some of the best images to have appeared in newspapers and magazines last year; these will be shown after dark in store windows and on a large outdoor screen in the middle of the pedestrian mall.

One area, called YourSpace, will be available for festival‑goers to display their pictures, provided they fit within the theme of snapshots. If these pictures exist only digitally, workers from Canon will make prints of them.

More than 20 photographers will project their pictures on the walls of an abandoned warehouse June 13, and as the grand finale event June 14, more than 20 other photographers will project their best work on a screen at the Charlottesville Pavilion. In addition, many galleries throughout Charlottesville will have photography exhibits. Winners of Pictures of the Year International and offerings from the White House News Photographers Association will be included.

"The idea is a coming together of this tribe that I belong to. Photographers travel so much they never get to talk," Nichols said.

Look3 Festival of the Photograph

When: June 12‑14

Where: Throughout downtown Charlottesville

Cost: Some events are free. The conversations with photographers are $25. An all‑inclusive three‑day festival pass is $99; a premium seating VIP pass is $450; student passes are $50.

Info: (434) 977‑3687 or