September 9, 2008

Prom Exhibit At the Johnson: Making One's Mark

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Mary Ellen Mark has traveled around the world on assignments, capturing sub-cultures of outcasts, freaks, misfits and wunderkinds with her cameras. Whether it’s pictures of Bombay prostitutes or the elderly in Miami nursing homes, photos of circus trainers with their animals or behind the scenes glimpses of celebrities in Hollywood, her documentary portraiture aims to make us feel that her exotic subjects share an emotional commonality with their audience.
However, one of her latest projects, The Prom Series, now at the Johnson Museum through October 26, is an ethnographic look at something far more familiar — the high school prom. The effect is to help us to recognize the strange rituals in this commonplace American rite of passage. To this effect — to achieve a candid reality, rather than an image that is overly posed and reproduced — she captures her images in oversized Polaroids, which don’t allow for manipulation either in the dark room or in Photoshop. Many of her subjects display the gawky, oddball quirks of adolescents going through growing pains. For example, Joe Moore peers out of smudged oval frames in his ROTC uniform, visibly awkward while straining to look self-assured, as he places one hand around the waist of Kate Carr, who is pouting in an expression that appears confident enough to be more self-questioning. Likewise, Latosha Smith is a bright-eyed beauty in a diamond choker, her face framed by ringlets, her long flowing prom dress displaying pregnant bulge. Her date, Phillip Azore, however, has a downcast look in an oversized suit with a flashy zigzag tie, looking implicated and framed.
Other subjects are frankly more fetching and sexy, whether they are prom queens or drag kings. Among the most traditional high school sweethearts are Emily Perria and Patrick Intolubbe-Chmil, who press the length of their bodies against each other, his arms wrapped around her waist, her hand resting on his thigh, as their cheeks touch while they turn their heads to face the viewer. They seem completely at ease in the intimacy of their embrace. He has a strong jaw and long shaggy hair while she has soft features and gentle feminine curves—their seductive maturity makes one forget they’re just high school kids.
Also attractive, but provoking implicit questions about what we consider attractiveness to be, Samantha Monte, a tall, willowy blonde with model looks and a demure smile in three-quarters profile, places her large, manicured hand over Khalil Samad’s dress shirt; he, too, could be a model, standing comfortably with hands in his pockets, his jet-black skin in stark contrast to his pure white suit. Black suspenders peek out beneath his suit jacket, hinting at the contours of his athletic frame.
Many of the polaroids address issues of gender construction: Candice Martin could be mistaken for a cherub-faced boy with her shaggy, cropped hair and slightly insouciant smirk, dressed up in a dapper tuxedo, perfect down to the crisp folds of its handkerchief in her breast pocket. Miranda Banks stares at her in profile, her gaze somewhere between admiration, ardor and motherly protectiveness, holding tight to her arm and looking much older and unmistakably womanly in her dress and tiara.
How we play with and appropriate ready-made roles also informs the picture of Robyn Frazier and Keicon Cherry. Robyn slouches over, resting her head on Keicon’s shoulder. She’s a tall, sloe-eyed black girl with a world-weary expression in mile-high heels and inches-short flapper dress. He’s a diminutive black boy with a cockeyed grimace, wearing a zoot suit and a pimp hat. They depict a fascinating study of children playing dress-up in adult roles, caught up in the dialectic of power and dependence.
Adolescents make such stunning subjects because so many are obviously trying to redefine their identity, such as Michael Davis, who has thin, slit-eyes with half-closed lids, greasy hair and the peach fuzz shadow of a mustache above his upper lips, which turn down in a slight scowl. He wears black pants and a black, open-collared shirt, separated by a large belt buckle with a flaming skull that has the word “death” written on it. He places one arm around Ericka Brown, a black girl who has thin braids of hair, round eyes, and large muscular shoulders. She wears an all white diamond-pattern sequin dress, in an ambivalent pose with one hand across her belly and one arm flung over her breasts, simultaneously seeming to display and cover up her body.
From our own backyard of Ithaca High, Jameelia Ricks looks large and in charge, with her hands on her hips, a sassy pout and the direct, almost intimidating gaze of a diva, completed by the pearls, shawl and tiara she wears. Standing nearby is Marielle Evangelista, a shorter and thinner girl who self-consciously holds her fingers, looking more introspective. She seems to be both more puckish and uncertain, with a lip-ring and long bangs, and her chin tilted slightly away from the viewer.
After perusing Mark’s exhibition, one wonders how much the “candid” reality of adolescents is their struggle to fit into the sometimes fabulous, but more often prefabricated adult roles that are as artificial and constraining as many of the dresses they wear.