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Read this now: “Prom” by Mary Ellen Mark.

Mary Ellen Mark at work on "Prom", Chelsea Piers, New York City. (Photo dlemieux on flickr.)

A few weeks before the dawn of time the very first interview I ever did back at ARTINFO was with Mary Ellen Mark. The occasion was Steidl’s republication of her 1981 “Falkland Road” book of photographs of Bombay prostitutes.

Now the Getty Museum has just published Ms Mark’s “Prom”, the result of a four-year project photographing high school prom-goers the length and breadth of the country. At first sight, the subjects of these two books could hardly seem more distant – low-caste Bombay prostitutes in the earlier book, and American high school students in the new one. It is however a clue to the power of Ms Mark’s art that a good deal of common ground emerges between the two bodies of work, and that common ground is in their reflection of the more tragic aspects of human existence.

Mary Ellen Mark, Christina Chang. Austin, Texas, 2008." © Mary Ellen Mark

Tragic? How so? These new pictures were all taken on what Ms Mark calls “a day full of hopes” for their subjects. (And which one of them confirms she had been dreaming about “since I was a baby”.) But, to my  eye at any rate, for every optimistic picture here there are a dozen that I find as depressing as hell. And a few that scare me.

Mary Ellen Mark, "Joe Moore and Kate Carr. Wyncote, Pennsylvania, 2006" © Mary Ellen Mark

Look at the 2006 picture of Joe Moore and Kate Carr. Joe’s in his Marine Corps uniform – he tells us that he swore in at the end of eleventh grade. His tie’s a little askew, but he stands to attention and stares proudly ahead (though somewhere over our right shoulder). It is his girlfriend Kate who looks straight into the camera, and the cares reflected in her young face are nothing short of harrowing. Maybe she has a clearer sense of Joe’s future than she does. It’s six years since that photograph was taken. I don’t want to contemplate what young Joe Moore has been through in that time. (Actually, that’s not true. I did a web search for him. I’m happy to report I couldn’t find any mention of him coming to harm – and pray I haven’t overlooked anything.)

Mary Ellen Mark, "LaTosha Smith and Phillip Azore. Wyncote, Pennsylvania, 2006" © Mary Ellen Mark

Then there’s Joe and Kate’s classmates, LaTosha Smith and Phillip Azore. When their photograph was taken LaTosha was pregnant. “I don’t feel like an adult, I feel young still,” the book records her saying. “My child will make me feel like an adult.” Again, I’d love to be able to hear optimism in that comment, but I look at the pain already legible in young Phillip’s face and my heart aches for them and their unborn child.

Mary Ellen Mark, "Tim Blackwell and Kelly Hayden. Austin, Texas, 2008" © Mary Ellen Mark

Tim Blackwell and Kelly Hayden were photographed in Austin, Texas in 2008. Overweight Kelly wobbles in her high heels, though her ankle tattoo declares her “wild”. Tim sports full Emo attire – what must it be like to look like that in Texas? – and, again in the comments recorded at the back of the book, he tells us way more than we want to know: “Prom is just an excuse to get f*cked up, drunk, drugs, have a good time.

Natalie Williams and James Gallagher. Screengrab from Martin Bell's movie "Prom"

It is no criticism of the eloquence of Ms Mark’s pictures to record that the portrayal of these young people is deepened and enriched by these short comments, and by the remarkable movie (also called “Prom”) by her husband Martin Bell that is included on DVD in the back of the book – you can find a trailer for it here – because in fact I find these pictures even more poignant when they are left mute, as it were.

Try these:

Mary Ellen Mark, "Toccarra Baguma and George Wilkinson. New York City, 2007." © Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark, "Samantha Monte and Khalil Samad, Staten Island, New York, 2006" © Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark, "Michael Glorioso and Eva Wierzbinska. Staten Island, New York, 2006." © Mary Ellen Mark

These are not happy pictures in my opinion. Every one of those young people carries within them the seeds of their own tragedy. And a number of them, I would wager, will share some of that tragedy with those around them.

And the reason I said some of these pictures scare me? Because I see the fate of America in them. Because, like a lot of other people, “I believe that children are our future.” (I’d probably be making too fine a point of it to link the circumstances of Whitney Houston’s death to that line from one of her most successful tracks, but I’ve gone and done it anyway.)

Mary Ellen Mark, "Rekha with beads in her mouth. Bombay, India 1978." © Mary Ellen Mark

I suspect that Ms Mark would disagree completely with my reading of these pictures. I was similarly depressed by her Falkland Road pictures when we discussed them, but she rejected my suggestion that they made India look “a heartbreaking place” – it’s “a beautiful place” she insisted – and, to my use of the word “harrowing”, she said, “The women are survivors … These are pictures about survival. I found the women very beautiful. For many of these women, this is a better life than they might have had otherwise … this is better than being destitute or on the street.”

But we don’t need to speculate on how Mary Ellen Mark sees her “Prom” pictures. I’m going to be interviewing her for ASfwSS later this month, and I shall ask her.

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