The 21st-Century American Prom | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Cristina Cárdenas and Jeremy Longoria, Houston, 2008. (Mary Ellen Mark)

The 21st-Century American Prom

Renowned photographer Mary Ellen Mark invites herself to the dance, capturing the poignant moment teenagers teeter on the edge of adulthood

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We had this vague idea that we would have to take someone. That was how the prom registered to the 500 kids in my high-school graduating class as we entered our senior year. For better or worse, I didn’t attend a school that featured a homecoming dance or junior prom or any all-American John Hughes-type of event. Our one and only foray into bow ties and blowouts was the senior prom—the spot of black tie in a sea of otherwise disaffected grunge.

I’d managed to go through one round of prom already. I had gone with a senior boy, a friend of a friend, when I was a sophomore. Nothing scarring occurred, but I remember being bored for a sustained period of time. To be fair, I was also an ungrateful pain of a date, annoyed that this otherwise lovely gentleman had forgotten to purchase a corsage beforehand and didn’t want to go “into the city” afterward. I can now see, with reasonable clarity, why I had such a disproportionately sharp reaction to this lackluster evening. I wanted to experience all that tradition and cheesiness on someone else’s emotional and chronological dime, to be scratched by the flowers on my wrist and the taffeta under my dress, to run barefoot on a football field at some point. I thought if I did these things, when my prom came along, I could sidestep the pressure. Basically I wanted to avoid the kind of naked and fearful expressions on display in so many of Mary Ellen Mark’s stunning photographs.

Regardless of their varied tone and dress, all of these photos are eerie. I have been trying to put my finger on it. Stand two young people next to each other and have them face the camera and instantly I am going to conjure up Diane Arbus’ famous photo, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967. But what’s going on in Marks’ prom pictures has more subdued whimsy, more sly knowing. When I look at these pictures, I see the strange mixture of maturity and naïveté that comes with being 17 or 18. As grown-ups, we tend to forget that being a teenager is an art. It’s the art of trying on the future. Sometimes this art comes in the form of elaborate pageant-style dresses and matching sateen handbags/attitudes, other times in bed-head chic hair and an “I was over this yesterday” expression. Either way, it takes a good deal of curation. The prom is the artist’s museum retrospective.

Whether you attended a private school in Beverly Hills or a public school in rural West Virginia, the very idea of the prom brings with it its own culture and language. When I go to a fancy event now, I never “get asked,” nor do I offer the name of the person I am “taking.” One “takes” a person to prom the way one “takes” one’s most valuable possessions when one’s house is on fire. The prom is a giant selection process...and you’d best choose wisely because there will be photographic evidence.

The photographic evidence is everything. I doubt most American teenagers would be anxious about the politics of limo seating if they didn’t have a sense that “right now” would morph into “back then.” Mary Ellen Mark’s photos demand their subjects be placed on the timeline of their lives. There are even hints of their imminent selves, looking like actors and agents, criminals and lawyers, bankers and schoolteachers already. It’s daunting for subject and viewer alike. Perhaps that explains why so many of them are holding hands, gripping onto each other for dear life.

It’s certainly why I thought I could treat someone else’s prom as a vaccination against caring about my own. Of course, my plan didn’t work. By the time my own prom rolled around, I had developed a crush on the class clown. He was all I thought about when not thinking about college applications. I knew he knew nothing of my feelings, and so I got up the courage to ask him myself. Alas, he was already going with someone else. Rejected, I adopted a This-Guy-or-Bust stance and decided to go stag. I had a great time. This, despite the fact that our prom anthem was Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me.” My last memory of the night is walking across Broadway in Manhattan, barefoot because my shoes had hurt, running to grab pizza and bring it back to the limo. Broadway is no football field, but one can’t have everything one imagines, can one? My only moment of awkwardness, when the traditions of the prom butted heads with the reality of my dateless-ness, came while in line for the photographer, when my group of friends split into couples.

In a shoe box in my closet, I have three versions of that photograph. In the first, I am standing alone. In the second, a male friend jumped in to pose with me. The third is my favorite. I am laughing and reaching out for someone’s hand. I have no recollection of whose hand it was.

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