Thursday, December 31, 2015

Kelly's TBP 2.15: Prom

Dear Jenny,
I finished this book back in February and I procrastinated on publishing this. Then the artist passed away in May and I thought, "I should just write this thing up!" And then... more time passed. But it's been sitting in our Drafts folder for 10 months, so hey -- let's finish it.

I cannot remember where I first read about this book, but I basically saw a review and did not hesitate to order it straight from Amazon. I have no idea why I was so immediately drawn to it, but I sure was.

Here's the book description:
Using a Polaroid 20x24 Land camera, photographer Mary Ellen Mark traveled across the US from 2006-2009, photographing prom-goers at thirteen schools from New York City to Charlottesville, Virginia, to Houston to Los Angeles. Mark’s husband, Martin Bell, collaborated with her on the project to produce and direct a film, also called Prom, featuring interviews with the students about their lives, dreams, and hopes for the future. A DVD of the film is packaged with the book.
I did go to prom, but I really don't remember it being a "huge deal" -- in fact, one year I wore a Hawaiian print dress that I had gotten on sale the previous year for $20. So, you know... it wasn't like my "big dream." But... I do really like to see kids dressed up for prom. I don't know why, but it's a thing I enjoy.
So... about this book. Well, the photographs are terrific. A really broad range of kids from all walks of life. And that Polaroid 20x24 Land camera produces some amazing quality photos. 

So that's great. But then... I had some problems with the actual structure of this book that took away from my reading experience.

Basically, every page features a photo and I found myself really wanting to know more about these kids. A few of them had quotes interspersed with the photos, but not all of them. So I wanted more of that. But then, I realized that there were more quotes... in the back of the book. Weird. So I had the uncomfortable experience of flipping back and forth between the photographs and the back of the book to see what the quotes were. Not so great.

And then sometimes, that was just a waste of time because... not all of the kids had quotes! So I'd flip to the back of the book to find just their names, the school, and the year, which was already on the page itself. I honestly have no idea why the author (editor? publisher? Not sure how much power the artist/author has in this kind of book) decided to lay this book out like this. It was like flipping back and forth for footnotes with a giant, unwieldy book (only to discover most of the time that... there was no footnote there!) Sooo... not fun.

I went online to look the artist up and I found... that this entire book is available at her website. And if you go to the "Plate List," you will see a list of all of the quotes, next to the photographs that they match. So, you know... a better reading experience for free on her website. I mean, I know that the paper reproduction of the photos are better than what is on her site, but still -- it just seems so strange to me that she is offering the same thing I paid for on her site for free.

However, I will say this -- what you don't get on the site is some of the really great juxtapositions that the author put together in the physical book...

Similar poses for dramatically different couples:
 Same couple/two poses:

And just look at these cutie patooties:

There was also a DVD included that was a sort of "behind the scenes" on the book itself. Like the book, you can also watch it online in its entirety. The film was fun -- I liked seeing some of the outfits in color and the kids interacting with one another was pretty adorable. Probably the highlight is this one kid from a family of dentists that they keep going back to -- he's got some hilarious lines about not wanting to be a dentist and the impact that the "family business" has had on him.

If you're interested in seeing all of the photos for yourself, head over here. I'd start with the Plate List, because that's got all of the quotes with the thumbnails. You have to click on the thumbnails to see the larger photo and then go back to read the quotes... Hey! It does sort of mimic the difficult-to-navigate experience of reading the book itself!

Final update on this post: I just scrolled through that Plate List page and remember a lot of the feelings I had when perusing this book. The kids' quotes are all over the map: funny, real, childish, and heartbreaking. It makes me wish (again) that the quotes were better incorporated into the book itself (and that every couple had a quote -- I'm wildly curious about the ones who did not say anything!)

This one girl has stuck with me, as she had this heart-breaking thing to say:  "Me, I'm not going to college. I'm going to the military. It was just something I wanted to do since I was like a little girl, and also it's just to get away, you know what I'm saying? Have fun, travel, see the world." Man... that is not what I think of when I think of going into the military.

I guess this seems like a negative review, and that's why I've been sitting on it for so long. I read something earlier this year that said that John Irving never writes a negative review. If he didn't like the book, he just... returns it. I kind of like that. But... this review wasn't meant to be all negative. I really did enjoy this work -- it just could have been better. That's all.

Now -- go look at kids in their Prom attire. It's some good shit.



  1. This looks like a cool book and I will definitely check out the website. I guess the only explanation I can think of for the weird text thing is that the photographer didn't want any competition for the photographs?

    Do you still have your prom photos? (I bet you do!)


  2. Also, super weird to think of how old these kids must be now!

  3. A lot of these are so poignant! The one of the girl with cancer and the one where the couple are pregnant. OMG. So sad.