Arts Beat

These Aren't Your Everyday Prom Polaroids

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Ah, prom. It's the season for obsessing over finding the perfect date, for dancing to Top 40 hits under a sparkling disco ball, for trying not to puke in the limo on the way to the after-party. And at Charlottesville High School, for getting portraits taken by a world-famous photographer.

On April 26, Mary Ellen Mark and her entourage of assistants set up a makeshift photo studio in a small room next to the school's gymnasium. Mark is working on a three-year project called "Prom." Charlottesville High was the seventh of 12 schools she is photographing.

Next weekend, Mark will speak at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph here, where her Charlottesville photos will be on display.

"Prom is a slice of Americana for me," Mark said. "You learn about a culture and how different racial groups bring their own style to prom."

Mark, 68, has made a career of photographing the famous and the un-famous. Her pictures of celebrities (Johnny Depp, Maya Angelou and Sarah Jessica Parker to name a few) appear in publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times and Rolling Stone. But her social-documentary photographs are the heart of her work, including mental patients in Oregon, circus performers in India and refugees in Ethiopia. One of her most famous images, taken in 1983, is of a 13-year-old Seattle prostitute named Tiny.

The inspiration for "Prom" hit Mark when she saw the Malcolm X Shabazz High School band marching in a New York City parade. She photographed the Newark, N.J., high school's prom in May 2006 and the mostly African American students "were dressed incredibly," she said. During the first prom season of 2006, Mark captured an uptight military couple, a mournful young man and his pregnant date, and a cane-carrying teen in a zoot suit, complete with a feather in his hat.

In an essay for Aperture magazine last summer, novelist Francine Prose mused on the cultural meaning of Mark's photos.

"The photographs make us realize how much the prom is a rehearsal for a wedding," she wrote. "The future bride is practicing for a role that, despite all the apparent changes in our views of women and marriage, has remained remarkably unaltered -- a role that is weirdly and totally retro."

The New York City-based photographer selected Charlottesville High for her project because she wanted a Southern school. A trip to Texas last month also helped fulfill that niche.

Mark chose which couples to photograph herself (with the help of a small army of Polaroid-wielding interns). She instructed them to look for odd pairings -- tall and short, black and white, fat and thin, according to the interns. She had found lesbian couples to photograph at other high schools, but was still searching for a gay male couple.

Charlottesville High senior Rickeyla Johnson, who is black, and her date, Paul Hedrick, who is white, were one of the dozen couples that Mark selected. When an intern tapped Johnson on the shoulder to tell her about the portraits, she told the couple that the process would take 10 or 15 minutes; it took about an hour. At one point, Johnson got bored and wandered back into the gymnasium, causing a frantic-looking Mark minion with a clipboard to chase after her.

Mark, wearing tinted glasses and her black hair in two braids, positioned the couple in front of the gray backdrop. As she shifted them around, she learned that Johnson and Hedrick were just friends and that they met at Kmart.

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