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David Alagem and Lorraine Nicholson, Los Angeles, 2008 (Courtesy of Mary Ellen Mark)

Not Your Average Prom Portraits

by Claire O'Neill
Apr 6, 2012 (All Things Considered)

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Andy Dunlap and Helen Alston, Charlottesvile, Va., 2008: "'Sparks' keep coming up -- like, 'When did you guys really spark?' No, it just sort of happened," says Alston, "and it's nice." Mary Ellen Mark and Stuart A. Eisenberg, Cheltenham High School senior prom, Wyncote, Pa., 1958 Mark at work, with the 20x24 camera behind her.

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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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