Oh prom. To teens coming of age, it’s pomp and punch, glamor and hormones. It’s supervised debauchery, a formal acknowledgement from the school board that the only thing students think about all day in class is other students. It’s sexual liberation stifled by tantalizing, Jane Austenian formality. It’s not just a dance, it’s a ball.
To everyone else, it’s a cruel and unusual mass prank. Lure a bunch of kids in a gym by telling them it’s very important. Sell tickets. Watch them drive limos to get there, tripping onto the sidewalk in various states of pubescence, flushed in anticipation of the night to come and a particularly liberal layer of Clearasil. Tell them the memories from tonight will last forever. Then…and this is the best part…photograph it.
This is the topic Mary Ellen Mark explores in her work, Prom. On display at the The Philadelphia Museum of Art from July 1st - Oct 28th, it’s a collection of 41 black and white photographs of prom-goers captured from 13 schools around the country between 2006 and 2009. They’re impressive in reproduction, and mind-blowing in person.
On one hand, Mark’s photography technique alone elevates the plebeian prom photo into high art. The portraiture is captured by a 20-by-24-inch Polaroid Land Camera, a massive, 200lb camera that produces one-of-a-kind shots with no negatives. The film itself was a gift to Mark from Polaroid—some of the world’s last remaining stock. The images become a grand, fleeting gesture, much like prom itself.
She also captures subjects themselves in a remarkable balance that simultaneously acknowledges the ridiculousness of the right of passage and the earnest feelings behind it. Where there are no doubt dozens of tumblr blogs dedicated to silly prom photos, but you couldn’t really see Mark’s work as suitable there. They’d be laughing at the prom, while Mark seems to be laughing with it.
And when you’re done with the portraits, you should check out the videos. Martin Bell interviewed all of Mark’s subjects on camera in a 33 minute movie, also titled Prom, which is also part of the exhibit at PMA. Feel free to laugh both where appropriate and not appropriate. Because, chances are, someone was probably laughing pretty hard behind your back, too.