For all the hullabaloo of my Senior Prom and the associated hoopla of the central New Jersey homeschool community, I’m not sure that going to prom is an experience I’d ever like to repeat. Sure, it was fun helping my mom with the centerpieces and dragging my long suffering Canadian boyfriend with me but between the dress (which I made myself), the actual event (which I spent moping around in anticipation of missing my boyfriend when he returned to Montreal) and the after party (which consisted of A Knight’s Tale and a dozen friends crashing on the living room floor), the entire experience was rather anticlimactic.
But old habits die hard. I went to not one but four proms in high school and ended up in tears over so-and-so not asking me to dance more times than not. In college, I joined the Social Planning Committee about seven minutes after I arrived on campus, thus earning myself the distinction of the only freshman able to score two tickets to the annual Goucher College Gala, and during my year abroad, I dragged my flat mates to the Oxford Union at 6:00am to join the “queue” for tickets to the Blenheim Palace Masquerade Ball. Despite the fact that my dress was—and I’m being objective here—totally fabulous, I was dateless and therefore miserable the entire time.
As such, it was with great fear and trepidation that I accepted the invite to attend the press preview for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s newest exhibit, Prom: Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark (which runs from July 1-October 28 at the Perelman Building).
The exhibit comprises 41 portraits taken at high schools across the country. I couldn’t believe the variety: there are gay couples, pregnant couples, super conservative and ensconced in lace couples, Goth couples, punk couples and the list goes on. Mark used a Polaroid Land Camera for the collection so the portraits have a Victorian feel to them: they’re black and white and hardly any of her subjects are actually smiling. (We were told this was because Mark, a photojournalist, wanted to honor the students as they embarked upon this American rite of passage but I think the majority of the kids just didn’t like their dates.)
Having been rather disappointed by the majority of proms and college formals I attended, I was somewhat relieved to see that of the 41 couples depicted, less than half a dozen actually lived up to the Seventeen magazine version of looking good. In more portraits than not, the young women towered over their dates and I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them are going to look back ten years from now (as I’m doing right now) and ask themselves “What was I thinking????”
Nonetheless, it was a fascinating exhibit—and by fascinating, I mean kind of like a car crash: you can’t bear to look, but you can’t bear to look away either. Mark’s husband created a 33 minute film to accompany the exhibit so you can also hear the kids talking about the trials and tribulations of being an American teenager, including their feelings towards their dates, their hopes and dreams and their sex lives (or lack thereof). I’m not usually a huge fan of photography but I’d definitely recommend a visit for those of you who live in Philadelphia.
As for the rest of you: how was your prom? Did it live up to your expectations or did you spend the whole time crying in the bathroom? What did you wear (if you’re not too embarrassed to tell)? And: most importantly, are any of you still with your prom date? Perhaps I’ll post a photo from my prom if enough of you respond