CULTURE- ART FEATURE- The rite stuff: Mark's captivating prom dates

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A teenage prostitute wearing a veiled Jackie O. pillbox hat. A young Indian circus performer gazing out from between her own feet. Photographer Mary Ellen Mark's most celebrated images offer riveting portraits of people living on the fringes of society. 

But what's this? Her McGuffey Art Center exhibition features portraits of prom dates? Could anything be more mainstream than a posed prom picture?

No– and that's Mark's point. "It's so American," she said, discussing her fascination with the high school ritual during her Festival of the Photograph appearance at the Paramount. "I kind of want the pictures to seem mundane."

 But viewed through the lens of Mark's camera, the ordinary always reveals itself as extraordinary. The 20" x 24" black-and-white Polaroid portraits that make up "Prom" effervesce with the energy of youth, its beauty, its vulnerability, its quicksilver vacillation between confidence and insecurity. 

For this series, Mark traveled to 12 different proms, including Charlottesville High School's, selecting attendees who seemed to reflect, in that microcosmic moment, something about our country as a diverse macrocosm— the prom as "melting pot," where for one night everyone participates in the American dream, looking good and living large.

Although Mark's forthcoming book about the project will include the couples' personal stories, the portraits at McGuffey stand on their own, free from concrete details. This lack of backstory prods viewers to project their own ideas onto the subtle drama Mark conveys in her posed yet evocative images. 

For instance, in the photograph of Michael Davis and Ericka Brown, a CHS couple, Brown gazes at the camera with trusting eyes, holding her graceful hands at her chest and stomach, like Botticelli's Venus. Meanwhile, Davis wears a dark shirt and slacks augmented with a skull-and-flame buckle reading "Death." Placing a protective arm around Brown's shoulders, he eyes the camera sideways. She's black. He's white. She's open. He's reserved. Together, they're astonishingly beautiful.

The last is true of all of Mark's subjects, and all for different reasons. In one of the few images where Mark lets her subjects smile, joy explodes from the face of Cristina Cardenasas as she dances with Jeremy Longoria, their limbs forming a series of diagonal lines. On the other hand, Edward Manchavez and Rusalina Zvyagilskaya ooze sultry, cosmopolitan coolness in their portrait.

Always, Mark finds something wondrous and unexpected in her prom-goers, yielding one-of-a-kind images that seem anything but mundane.

Mary Ellen Mark's exhibition, "Prom," is on view in the main gallery at the McGuffey Art Center through June 29. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.