Mary Ellen Mark and Stuart A. Eisenberg, Cheltenham High School senior prom, Wyncote, Pa., 1958
Courtesy of Mary Ellen Mark
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.
Shane Kammauff and Jenna Zschaebitz, Charlottesville, Va., 2008: "I'd like to do something with my time, like write a novel or make a great discovery or do something to really change the world," says Kammauff.
Christina Chang, Austin, Texas, 2008: "I'm actually a nominee for Miss Westlake, which is the senior girl who has contributed the most to her school in terms of leadership, character, honesty, improvement to the school and its individuals," Chang says.
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?