From the jpegs online and what I had read about it, I had little interest in Mary Ellen Mark’s “Prom.” But I was visiting New York in January, and there were good photography exhibits; galleries are always warmer than the street.
This particular photograph kicked me in the stomach and brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know if it’s here in the jpeg, or in the book, but standing in front of a large format Polaroid can be a powerful experience. They have the dimensions of intimacy, wrapped with astounding resolution. Add the sense of it being one-of-a-kind, for me on that day, it was the perfect portrait. Many of the teens in these this series exhibit the awkwardness, confusion and whatnot that is often discussed about that period in life. Something about this one, in particular the young man, captures all that, plus some kind of hopelessness or resignation that is beyond his years. His future seems to be in this portrait, and concern about that future shows on his face. The woman balances the melancholy with an optimistic note; maybe it’s just that she’s taller, but her adult self seems well-established.
There’s always the discussion surrounding street portraits and consent, in terms of the ethics, legality and results of not getting a subject’s permission. The large format portrait is the opposite situation. Even positioned in front of a huge camera and lights, probably minutes waiting for Mark to focus and test lighting, some of the “Prom” portraits feel as if they were taken unaware. Part of that is teenage awkwardness, part of that probably has to do with what Mary Ellen Mark’s mastery. She’s able to wait for a candid moment while making a large format portrait (using very rare, very expensive film). Eggleston does this with his 5x7 series, my favorite of all his work.
Both the street and formal portrait photographers choose which photographs to show in a gallery, jpeg or book. Every photograph of another person is, in weaker hands, an opportunity to humiliate the subject’s image. That has nothing to do with how the photograph was captured, or whether consent was given. When bad motivation exists, it only reveals the photographer. It never reveals anything about the subject, because it is only ever the subject’s image. I know nothing about the couple pictured above. The small miracle of photography is, in Mary Ellen Mark’s hands, images with very little context can generate compassion.