Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Mary Ellen Mark, Prom @Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 30 black and white photographs, framed in white and mounted but unmatted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. All of the works are unique 24x20 Polaroid prints made between 2006 and 2009. A 33 minute film made by Martin Bell runs on a video monitor in the back viewing room. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by the J. Paul Getty Museum (here). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: The formal prom night portrait is a classic of American photographic cliche. Nearly every basement in the nation has a dusty box somewhere with a handful of snapshots of high school seniors in fancy clothes, standing in the front hall or lit up in the makeshift studio in the ballroom lobby, posing awkwardly with their dates. In a certain sense, the prom didn't really happen unless these kinds of pictures were dutifully taken, as they were (and still are) documentary evidence of the passing of an important coming of age milestone.
Before seeing this show, I was skeptical that Mary Ellen Mark could find a new way into this tired subject. And in many ways, she hasn't changed the formula for the standard portrait all that much, except to pare it down to its essentials: two (or sometimes three) teenagers stand against a uniform grey background (differentiated only by the patterns of the ballroom carpets underfoot) and are photographed in black and white in either full length or three quarter poses. The smart thing about this minimalist approach is that it pulls away all the other potential visual distractions, forcing the viewer to really look closely at the couple.
Before I even get to the people, their clothes, their hairstyles and their poses, I think the exquisite quality of the prints here is worth mentioning. These images were taken with a 20x24 Polaroid Land Camera (one of five in existence) and the prints have a depth of detail that is nothing short of astonishing, especially in the mid range tones. The glimmer of a dress, the worn shine of a rented tuxedo, the soft skin tone of an exposed arm, the sparkle of a handbag, they are all captured with an authentic richness that makes the subjects jump off the wall with vitality. Every single image deserves to be examined up close to revel in this meticulous precision. 
Mark has chosen her subjects from thirteen different proms across the country, from California to New York and everywhere in between, providing a diverse cross section of regional styles, fashions, and cultural phenomena. She clearly has an eye for mismatched pairs and outliers: the very pregnant girl, the dark eyed Emo guy, the same sex couple, the huge football player with his tiny girlfriend, the tall short combo, the nerds, the baby dolls. Closer inspection brings out more fabulous details: the nail polish, the Death belt buckle, the matching animal prints, the hooded cloak, the striped jacket and fedora, the mohawk, the tiara, the New England lace. It's an engrossing mix of the personal and the aspirational.
But I think in the end, it's the faces that make these pictures memorable. They bring together all the emotions that are part of the jump to adulthood: hope and trepidation, confidence and fear, swagger and uncertainty, unbridled joy and put on maturity. The photographs are unwaveringly honest and consistently optimistic; even the girl from the cancer ward, whose hair has fallen out, looks out with heartbreaking elegance and grace. Whether bursting with self-assurance or seemingly resigned to their fates, for one night, they get to show off their best and be who they had always wanted to be. Mark has deftly captured this elusive essence of prom, the bridge crossing significance that explains the long lasting durability of the ritual. The event mixes celebration of the past and the promise of the future, and Mark's photographs document that swirl of emotions with surprising openness.
Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced at $15000 each. Mark's work has come up at auction consistently over the past decade, albeit in relatively small numbers (perhaps a handful of lots in any given year). Secondary market prices have generally ranged between $1000 and $9000.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Exhibit: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2012 (here)
  • Features/Reviews: NY Times Lens (here), NPR Picture Show (here)
Mary Ellen Mark, Prom
Through January 26th
560 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

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