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

Luke Rome and Grayson Berryhill, Austin, 2008. Mary Ellen Mark
Cristina Cárdenas and Jeremy Longoria, Houston, 2008. Mary Ellen Mark
Ashley Conrad, Memorial Sloan- Kettering Cancer Center, New York, 2009. Mary Ellen Mark
Jason Sneed and India Whitney, Pacific Palisades, California, 2008. Mary Ellen Mark
Miranda Banks and Candice Martin, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2008. Mary Ellen Mark
Michael Gloriso and Eliza Wierzbinska, Staten Island, New York, 2006. Mary Ellen Mark
Toccarra Baguma and George Wilkinson, New York, New York, 2007. Mary Ellen Mark
Will and Jane Mattimoe (twins), Charlottesville, Virginia, 2008 Mary Ellen Mark
Christina Chang, Austin, Texas, 2008 Mary Ellen Mark

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.

Prom Photos From Our Readers

Name: Patricia Lundy Creedon
High School: North Quincy High School, Quincy, MA
Year photo taken: 1955

Here we are at our prom in 1955. Class President Bernard Creedon and his sweetheart Patricia Lundy are still dancing together 57 years later. I was certain that I wanted to share my life with this young man - and I have. Do his eyes reflect the physical pain he was experiencing? He was on crutches recovering from surgery to correct a football injury. It still pains him to this day.

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Patricia Lundy Creedon
Name: Sharon Lynn Bardsley
High School: Lewis and Clark High School, Spokane, WA
Year photo taken: 1956

A year after the Gonzaga Prep Junior Prom! How we changed! But now we were BIG TIME.......GRADUATING and had the world by the tail. Or so we thought. We went out to dinner, then the dance, double dated with our two best friends, Pat and Gretchen. My parents and Gretchen's had a pow-wow about the "after function" and said we could stay out all night!! WOW! This was an ENORMOUS permit from parents in the 50's! We headed for a party at Hayden Lake; somewhere along the way, Gretchen and I ran through a sprinkler on a golf course (we had changed clothes from our formals!). It was a hilarious night! And now Mike will escort me to my 56th Reunion of the Class of 1956 this summer, getting together after more than 50 years!

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Sharon Lynn Bardsley
Name: Waldo Keith Lindsey
High School: Ozark Adventist Academy, Gentry, AR
Year photo taken: 1977

I was afraid of girls; to the point, I had insecurity to the point of paralyzes. Mae and I had been going out for about a two months and I hadn't made a move. Not because I was a gentleman, but because I didn't really know what a "move" was. Finally, one night at a school lyceum, she reached over and took my hand. "I was tired of waiting," she said. We dated until the end of the year, culminating with this banquet, Mimosa Memories.

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Waldo Keith Lindsey
Name: Bill Allman
High School: St. Louis Country Day, St. Louis, MO

The Godfather movie was very big at the time, and it was fun to have formal wear to wear. So we took advantage of the occasion to pose -- it was an offer we couldn't refuse (third from right).

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Bill Allman
Name: Ed Reiff
School: Cardinal Dougherty High School, Philadelphia, PA
Year photo taken: 1960

Married Linda in November of 1960, we have now been married 51 years.

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Ed Reiff
Name: Jacquie Moen
High School: Gonzaga High School Senior Prom, Washington, D.C.
Year photo taken: 1988

This one is much better than the photo in front of the family living room fireplace....!! We were about to get into the limo. Note the big pink box with my corsage in it. Considering it was the '80s, we look pretty respectable. Of course the best part of the dance was the after party.

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Jacquie Moen
Name: Joe Germy
High School: Norwin, Irwin, PA
Year photo taken: 1962

50 years ago (May 1962) for the first date of his life, a young 16 year old Joe Germy happily escorted a sophisticated Jackie Dempsey to Norwin High’s (PA) junior prom. Two months later her family moved to the west coast and they’ve never seen each other again.

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Joe Germy
Name: Mary Elizabeth Carter
High School: Longmeadow High School, Longmeadow, MA
Year photo taken: 1976

My prom date and I never married. We did meet once three years later for 24 hours in Venice. When the train stopped exactly in the spot where our noses met - i was in my seat and he was standing on the platform-once again we were nose to nose this time with a train window between us. He became an OB/GYN and I never stopped painting and designing clothes. The dress embarrassingly enough was my own creation...shawl to match...i even embellished the ballet flats. The song was "We may never pass this way again." Yet, it was The Miracles, Love Machine that had EVERYONE ON THE DANCE FLOOR. A group of six of us headed to a very memorable and very fancy dinner at the Century Club - the king crab legs, chocolate mousse and WINE - courtesy of Davids' Dad!

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Mary Elizabeth Carter
Name: Kathleen Maddux Pearlman
High School: Valley High School, Valley Station, KY
Year photo taken: 1970

I snipped out my date of the evening, who pinched me just as the photographer took the picture. The pcrous stylerom theme that year was "Aquarius". Between the senior and junior classes that year (the prom was the Senior-Junior Prom)there were over 1000 students, but I have no idea how many attended the prom. My hair was such a ludricrous style, but had seemed so sophisticated when I saw it in a magazine. It took hours and a lot of pain to get all the teaasing asnd hair pins out of it. My dad thought my boyfriend was beating me up because of the screeching wehen he was trying to help me brush it out the next day.

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Kathleen Maddux Pearlman
Name: Mike Riley
High School: Gonzaga Preparatory, Spokane, WA
Year photo taken: 1955

I'm the date! We were such an ITEM then! Did we marry? Yes, but not to each other. He just found me on the computer last year, and after over 50 years of not seeing one another, he will escort me to my 56th Reunion for the Class of '56 this summer! This was Gonzaga's Junior-Senior Prom; we were both juniors then. Please see second photo of my Senior Prom with him the next year! He took me, with other fellows from his class and their dates, to a dinner that was so enormous that I was afraid I would split the seams of my just-a-tad-too-tight formal! But it was a wonderful evening!!

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Mike Riley
Name: Donald G. Tock
High School: Central High, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Year photo taken: 1957

I met Paquita Calva at age 14 when a friend of hers telephoned my home by mistake. We were inseparable until age 19, and at age 17 enjoyed my senior prom in 1957. I was a poor boy from the inner city of Minneapolis and she from a well to do family in the suburbs. During our 5 years together her father did everything he could to keep us apart. He succeeded and she later married (for 12 years) the man of her father’s dream. BUT 30 years later I returned and eventually took her to another senior prom.

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Donald G. Tock
Name: Kimberly Vaught
High School: Marion Senior High, Marion, Virginia
Year photo taken: 2010

I actually asked him to prom, and he would later become the first love and heartbreak of my life. The prom that started it all. Also, fun fact: a guy in our prom group broke his leg and was in a wheel chair the whole day!

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Kimberly Vaught
Name: Dennis Hall
High School: St. Fredericks, Pontiac, Michigan
Year photo taken: 1958

This photo was taken at my parents home before we attended the prom. This was my first date with Pat. She still lives near Pontiac and I live in Sacramento, California.

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Dennis Hall
Name: Albert Morales Tock
High School: Redondo Union High, Redondo Beach, California
Year photo taken: 2011

She told me the day I was going to ask her out to prom that she didn't want to go because no one had asked her yet, so I quickly texted her to meet me in my art class room. I ran to my art class and asked my teacher if she could help me set up the prom proposal video on the big screen projector. When my date came into the room I was hiding in the supplies room and my art teacher told my date to sit up front and then turned off the lights and told her to watch. At the end of the video I sneaked myself out of the supplies room and when my date turned around she saw me......... with a warm smile and open arms.....and of course a yes.

Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Albert Morales
Name: Julie Delio
High School: Thomas Jefferson High, Dallas, Texas
Year photo taken: 1965

I don't remember my date's name because I had broken up with my boyfriend not long before the prom. I think my date was the son of one of my parents' friends. Our prom was at one of the first Marriott Hotels in Dallas. br>
Send us your memories and photos from your prom! » Jacqueline Moen

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.