Not Your Average Prom Portraits

Apr 6, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 9:54 am

Prom season is here. And there really isn't a more hyped event in high school social life. There's the fashion, the flowers, plans for the future and, of course, the after party. Photographer Mary Ellen Mark, now 72, recalls her 1958 prom with fondness.

"There I was, looking so perfect and happy facing my future," she tells NPR host Audie Cornish. "I was fascinated by my own prom pictures."

Hence her latest book: Prom, a collection of 127 portraits from 13 schools across the country, shot between 2006 and 2009.

Mark is known for more serious documentary work — prostitutes in Mumbai, street kids in Seattle — as well as similar portraiture like her previous Twins book. To her, this fits right in.

"I think the prom is very serious also," she says. "It's an American ritual, it's a rite of passage, and it's very much a part of this country."

To capture the prom seriously, Mark lugged around a 400-pound Polaroid 20x24 Land Camera — not quite the point-and-shoot parents typically use expressly to embarrass their teens on the front steps.

"It's just an amazing camera that captures incredible detail," she says. "You can't pick it up and take a snapshot with it."

Each photograph is a big deal, an elaborate production — kind of like prom. And so, while some of the teens in Mark's book are dancing or laughing, most stare straight at the camera, perhaps more self-aware than one might expect.

Though they probably have no idea what it means to be photographed by Mary Ellen Mark, no matter. Their expressions reveal the complexities of that age — still their parents' children, they are hurtling toward adulthood. They demand a closer look, to be taken more seriously.

The photos contrast quite dramatically with the more humorous documentary produced by Mark's husband, Martin Bell, which accompanies the book. Various prom-goers make coy suggestions about after parties. They roll their eyes at drama. They send texts midinterview, say "like" and smack gum.

But they also speak earnestly about love, about fashion and image, about how hard they worked to get there — and what they hope for the future.

"What was so touching about so many of these kids was their enormous optimism," says Mark.

"I think I'll have done something worthwhile with my life," says Shane Kammauff of Charlottesville, Va. "I think I'd like to do something with my time, like write a great novel or make a great discovery, or do something to really change the world."

Did you want to change the world at 16? Have you managed to do it yet?

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And we end this hour with a tribute to the prom. Could there be a more hyped event in high school social life? There's the fashion.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Our favorite color is green. So, for my prom last year, we kind of went with a sage green and now this is like a honeydew green.

CORNISH: The flowers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I tried to put on her boutonniere, but I kind of ended up pricking myself and she didn't want me to.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I didn't trust her, so I put it on.

CORNISH: Of course, nowadays, talk about the after party.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: My dad's prom was very conservative. He grew up in Boston, and I'm sure he just went to prom and went home and slept in his own bed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And are all of you planning on sleeping in your own beds tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: No. I'm not (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I think we're planning on sleeping in other beds than the ones we're normally used to. Yeah.

CORNISH: These teens are part of the latest project by documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark and her partner, film director Martin Bell. It's a book of portraits titled "Prom." Between 2006 and 2009, teens from all over the country posed for Mary Ellen Mark and these aren't your typical glossy grip and grins. Her portraits are elegant, sometimes awkward, but timeless in their innocent appeal.

Still, Mary Ellen Mark is most famous for her portfolio of serious photographs, projects featuring prostitutes in Bombay, street kids in Seattle. So I asked her, why prom?

MARY ELLEN MARK: Well, I think the prom is very serious, also. I mean, it's an American ritual. It's a rite of passage. And by doing this book, I was really able to closely examine it. It's something I've wanted to do ever since I became a photographer.


MARK: I was fascinated, first of all, by my own prom picture. There I was looking so perfect and happy, facing my future. Also, because several times during my life as a photographer, I photographed prom - first in 1986 for the "Day in the Life of America." Then again, in 1996, for Allure magazine, I did an assignment in Pittsburgh following a girl through a week before prom and then going to prom. And then, in 2004, I did an assignment for the New Yorker on prom.

And then, when I started to work with a 20 by 24 camera about 15 years ago, I did a book on twins first and I was looking for something else that would really fit that camera and I thought prom was the perfect, perfect project to do with the 20 by 24 camera.

CORNISH: Explain what it is because it's enormous.

MARK: It's probably about 400 pounds and you can't pick it up and take a snapshot with it. But the photograph becomes an incredible object, and prom is so much about your choice of partner and your choice of dress and who you are.

CORNISH: Were there any couples that touched you? And what did they look like?

MARK: Well, there were lots of couples that touched me. I mean, some of the couples were just delightfully funny. There was a couple in Texas that I really - that were really adorable. Hunter Johnson and Anna Nodine. Their parents imposed on them the six-inch rule, so they weren't allowed to come within six inches of each other.

ANNA NODINE: It's actually really annoying and we break it all the time behind their backs. But this is the first night we're officially allowed to be within six inches of each other, so it's really exciting. And it's the first time that we've been able to be together without someone looming over us.

HUNTER JOHNSON: I really don't think I can add anything to that.

MARK: Their relationship was very amusing and sweet, and as were so many of the other relationships that the children had.

CORNISH: In the companion film where you get to hear the kids' voices, it really seemed as though they very much saw it as a glamorous sendoff to the next part of their lives.

MARK: It's an exciting sendoff. And it's becoming an adult. As the girl that leads you through this film tells you that she's going to have to pay her cell phone bills now. And what was so touching about so many of these kids was their enormous optimism about the future. And these are hard times and that really surprised me that these kids could be so optimistic.

CORNISH: Well, Mary Ellen Mark, thank you so much for talking with us.

MARK: You're welcome. Thank you.

CORNISH: That's documentary photographer, Mary Ellen Mark. You can see her work and her prom dress and the endearingly awkward prom dresses and photos from your fellow listeners at


FUN.: Tonight we are young, so let's set the world on fire...

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.