Famed Photographer Captures American Vibe In High School Images
Thursday, June 5th, 2008
By Rachel Beckman, Washington Post Staff Writer
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
CHARLOTTESVILLE ‑ Ah, prom. It's the season for obsessing over finding the perfect date, for dancing to Top 40 hits under a sparkling disco ball, for trying not to puke in the limo on the way to the after-party. And at Charlottesville High School, for getting portraits taken by a world-famous photographer.
On April 26, Mary Ellen Mark and her entourage of assistants set up a makeshift photo studio in a small room next to the school's gymnasium. Mark is working on a three-year project called "Prom." Charlottesville High was the seventh of 12 schools she is photographing.
Next weekend, Mark will speak at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph here, where her Charlottesville photos will be on display.
"Prom is a slice of Americana for me," Mark said. "You learn about a culture and how different racial groups bring their own style to prom."
Mark, 68, has made a career of photographing the famous and the un‑famous. Her pictures of celebrities (Johnny Depp, Maya Angelou and Sarah Jessica Parker to name a few) appear in publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times and Rolling Stone. But her social‑documentary photographs are the heart of her work, including mental patients in Oregon, circus performers in India and refugees in Ethiopia. One of her most famous images, taken in 1983, is of a 13‑year‑old Seattle prostitute named Tiny.
The inspiration for "Prom" hit Mark when she saw the Malcolm X Shabazz High School band marching in a New York City parade. She photographed the Newark, N.J., high school's prom in May 2006 and the mostly African American students "were dressed incredibly," she said. During the first prom season of 2006, Mark captured an uptight military couple, a mournful young man and his pregnant date, and a cane-carrying teen in a zoot suit, complete with a feather in his hat.
In an essay for Aperture magazine last summer, novelist Francine Prose mused on the cultural meaning of Mark's photos.
"The photographs make us realize how much the prom is a rehearsal for a wedding," she wrote. "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 New York City‑based photographer selected Charlottesville High for her project because she wanted a Southern school. A trip to Texas last month also helped fulfill that niche.
Mark chose which couples to photograph herself (with the help of a small army of Polaroid‑wielding interns). She instructed them to look for odd pairings ‑ tall and short, black and white, fat and thin, according to the interns. She had found lesbian couples to photograph at other high schools, but was still searching for a gay male couple.
Charlottesville High senior Rickeyla Johnson, who is black, and her date, Paul Hedrick, who is white, were one of the dozen couples that Mark selected. When an intern tapped Johnson on the shoulder to tell her about the portraits, she told the couple that the process would take 10 or 15 minutes; it took about an hour. At one point, Johnson got bored and wandered back into the gymnasium, causing a frantic‑looking Mark minion with a clipboard to chase after her.
Mark, wearing tinted glasses and her black hair in two braids, positioned the couple in front of the gray backdrop. As she shifted them around, she learned that Johnson and Hedrick were just friends and that they met at Kmart.
"Can you hold hands? That's beautiful like that," Mark said. "Raise your chin. Stare right into the camera. No, don't smile." Johnson's cheeks dropped.
The lights flashed and the photo technicians rushed to grab the enormous 20by‑24‑inch black‑and‑white Polaroid print from the 600‑pound oversize camera. After 90 seconds, a buzzer announced that the photo was finished. In the image, Johnson and Hedrick's intertwined fingers stand out, as a mesmerizing contrast in skin colors, like a segment of piano keys.
"It's almost ghostly," Mark said. "They're great, aren't they?"
Photographer Mary Ellen Mark talks to prom couple Rickelya Johnson and Paul Hedrick, left; above, Mark's portrait of Shane Kammauff and Jenna Zschaebitz. Mark's unusual Polaroid camera weighs 600 pounds.
Mary Ellen Markwill speak at 7p.m. June 12 at the Paramount Theater, 215 E. Main St., Charlottesville. $25. 434‑977‑3687.Look3 Festival of the Photograph runs June 12‑14 at various locations in Charlottesville; www.look3.org.
The Arts for Healing Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts on U Street NW has always had an art gallery; it was just hard to find. And small. And in the administrative office. The nonprofit center, which serves people with cancer and other serious illnesses, reopened the Healing Arts Gallery last month with an exhibition called "Immersed in the Natural World."
"By dedicating this space and holding shows that promote the arts as tools for healing, it makes a statement," Smith Farm Executive Director Shanti Norris says.
The street‑level gallery is in a space formerly occupied by a pet store. The nature‑themed debut show features work by Elizabeth Burger, Tai Hwa Goh and Novie Trump, whose work includes seed pods, waxed paper and eggshells, respectively.
Elizabeth Burger and Novie Trumpwill talk about their work tomorrow, 5:30‑8 p.m. at the Healing Arts Gallery, 1632 U St. NW Free. 202‑483‑8600.
Painting Awards Announced B.G. Muhn of North Potomac won best in show at the presentation of the Bethesda Painting Awards last night. Muhn, originally from South Korea, is displaying surrealistic paintings of bald heads set on single‑color backgrounds. An exhibition of all the finalists' work is on view at the Fraser Gallery through July 5.
B.G. Muhn works at Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda. Tuesday‑Saturday, 11:30 a.m.‑6p.m., 301‑718‑9651.