Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Every Prom Picture Tells a Story

The recent professional collaborations of famed photographer Mary Ellen Mark and husband Martin Bell follow the same basic script. She takes finely detailed black and white pictures of subjects and he separately interviews them for a companion documentary.

From 2001 to 2004, the onus was on twins. This time around, courtesy of an opening night slot on Thursday, July 22nd at the 14th Annual L.A. Shorts Fest and a forthcoming 2011 book, the focus is the American high school prom, captured by Mark and Bell at a dozen nights of passage around the United States from 2006 through 2009.

Julianna McHugh & Griffin Wright, Cheltenham High School, Wyncote, PA June 6th, 2006 (Copyright Mary Ellen Mark)

A total of 76 young couples are featured in Bell's 33-minute companion piece documentary Prom, but the real star of the show is arguably the camera that was used during this odyssey by the now 70-year-old Mark. Photos were taken with a special 600-pound Polaroid camera that outputted 20-by-24 inch prints on now-obsolete paper.

Mark was sparked to the prom project after watching Newark's Malcolm X Shabazz High School marching band take part in a New York City parade. Beginning with that school's big day in May, 2006, she tried as much as possible to zero in on contrasting pairings such as tall and short, Caucasian and African-American or stocky and thin. The upcoming 14th Annual L.A. Shorts Fest screening will be especially resonant because two of the twelve schools profiled by Mark and Bell are close by: the Palisades Charter High School in the Pacific Palisades and Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood.

In 1992, right around the time when their Prom subjects were being born, Mark and Bell made a full-length fictional drama, American Heart, starring Jeff Bridges and Edward Furlong.

[The Prom project]

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