I've always been interested in photographing traditions and customs—especially in America. The prom is an American tradition, a rite of passage that has always been one of the most important rituals of American youth. It is a day in our lives that we never forget—a day full of hopes and dreams for our future.
Mary Ellen Mark, 2011
Beginning in 2006 Mary Ellen Mark began what would become a four-year project encompassing thirteen different high schools across America. Using two 20x24 Polaroid land cameras – a massive apparatus almost six feet tall and weighing 240 pounds, of which there were only five in the world – Mark photographed hundreds of teenagers on their prom night, an event that so often symbolizes the beginning of the transition into adulthood.
Having already developed an interest in photographing proms, with an eye towards emphasizing their socioeconomic and personal registers (she had, prior to this project’s beginnings, shot several proms using medium-format and 35mm cameras), Mark expanded the scope of her interest in the event by casting a wide, cross-country net, and by employing the aforementioned Polaroid camera, which was itself a kind of reflection of the subjects it so vividly rendered.
The Polaroid 20x24 produces a unique image, one with no negative from which future alterations may be made. As Mark discussed in the preface to her book on this work, Prom (2011), the entire process of properly calibrating the camera for each sitting was an onerous and challenging one. The results, however, were deemed more than worth it: large and richly detailed prints, the immediacy of which seemed to match that of its subjects.
Mark and her team worked to select students who would, collectively, represent a wide range of backgrounds and personalities. This diverse approach to selecting subjects was rooted in the expansive selection of schools in which she photographed: from public and private, to religious and single gender. This diversity of setting, coupled with Mark’s sensitivity towards her subjects, produced a many-layered portrait of American youth full of that unique mix of self-certainty and anxiety that our teenage years are so often characterized by, one that Mark, reflecting on her own prom, encapsulated so well: “The world was ours—or so we thought.”