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photo-eye Book Reviews: Prom

Prom. Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark.
Published by The Getty Museum, 2012.
Prom
Reviewed by Liz Kuball

Prom
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Film by Martin Bell
The Getty Museum, 2012. Softcover. 164 pp., 129 color illustrations, DVD, 10x12-3/4".

I wore a red dress to my prom and had my hair done in a French twist. I brought the VHS tape of Pretty Woman with me to my small-town beauty parlor and told the hairdresser that I wanted to look like Julia Roberts.

These are things I hadn't thought about in 20 years, but on a Saturday morning in May, thousands of miles from my high school, I thought about them, thanks to Mary Ellen Mark's latest book, Prom.

I came to Prom through the back door, first watching the accompanying documentary directed by Martin Bell. This 35-minute series of interviews with some of the photo subjects was heartbreaking and funny and a reminder of how scary and heady it was to be that age. They're kids still, but not for much longer, and they're all keenly aware of that fact; you get the sense that they're trying to suck every last drop of youth from the bottom of the glass, making noises with their straws. The video quality of the DVD felt a little like a poorly streaming Netflix movie, but the substance of the interviews made up for what the DVD lacked in sharpness.

Prom, by Mary Ellen Mark. Published by The Getty Museum, 2012.
Prom, by Mary Ellen Mark. Published by The Getty Museum, 2012.
Mark's photographs, made with a massive Polaroid 20x24 Land Camera, are exquisite. I usually prefer books to galleries, but I would love to see these prints on a wall. The photographs were made over a span of three years in twelve high schools across the United States, plus Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, which holds a prom every year in its pediatric ward. The diversity of students represented makes the book feel like a national yearbook of sorts, a portrait of a generation as they got ready to grow up.

Prom, by Mary Ellen Mark. Published by The Getty Museum, 2012.
Prom, by Mary Ellen Mark. Published by The Getty Museum, 2012.
I don't know if I'm projecting my own memories of high school onto these kids, but looking at these photographs, I feel for them. They look so young, and you know what's going through their minds, because the same things were going through your mind once, too: Will we stay together after high school? What will my future be? Will everything turn out okay? Most of all, I want to reach through the pages to these kids and reassure them.

I did not look like Julia Roberts on my prom night, but I still remember dancing to "Wonderful Tonight" with my boyfriend and making out in the car on the way home and the cop knocking on the window and telling us to move along, which we did.—LIZ KUBALL

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LIZ KUBALL Liz Kuball is a writer and photographer in Los Angeles, California. Her photography can be seen at http://www.lizkuball.com and has been editioned through 20x200.

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