For over three years, Mary Ellen Mark has been attending high school proms to capture that singular transitional moment when youth is teetering on the cusp of adulthood. This exhibition highlights large-format Polaroids from all twelve of the proms Mark shot, including her final stop in Ithaca on June 21, 2008, where she photographed the Ithaca High School prom.
The prom has always been considered a rite of passage, an event to plan and pull out all the stops for, a dress rehearsal of sorts for future life-changing events. These images show the full range of responses to this one night—some of the subjects are playful, relishing the moments left of carefree enjoyment; some are aggressive, taking the measure of the future and offering it a challenge; others are somber, cognizant of their dwindling moments left without responsibilities; and some are remarkably assured, aware of the power of their youth, their vigor, their sexuality. But one thing remains consistent: no matter which couple you look at, none of them is indifferent or blasé. Mark has managed to get to the core of this almost primal moment, while striking a chord in each of us as we view the work.
There is something of the tableau vivant in these works. Though photographed without props, there is still a very real sense of the theatrical, the elaborate clothing and straightforward stares, the pose of the bodies within the space, the simple backgrounds. Nothing comes between us and the figures, not even the glare of glass, and we see these pictures exactly as if we were there at the moment of their taking. Francine Prose has noted that Mark’s photographs “remind us why kids still care. . . . They are accounts of early skirmishes on the battlefields of courtship and adulthood, fables about love and sex and social interaction that can be oddly prophetic of—or (often happily) unrelated to—the rest of the prom-goer’s life.” With her photographs, Mark does something remarkable: she makes us care, about youth and its rituals, and about the promise that those teenage years hold.
We are very grateful to Jody and Peter Robbins, who made the exhibition and Mary Ellen Mark’s Ithaca High School prom shoot possible.
Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs