Our Living Faces

Monday, December 5th, 2011

By Helen Alston

Mary Ellen Mark

She photographed Federico Fellini dancing on the set of Satyricon in 1969. In 1993, she took a picture of Liam Neeson smoking on a street corner in Manhattan the same year he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Schindler’s List. She has photographed presidents, Mother Theresa, authors, activists, and street performers in India. My favorite portrait of hers is of Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker from 2002. He has an arm loosely around her waist; her body is half-turned from the camera, her belly pressed into the crook of his arm. Her left leg is extended as if they were dancing. Parker’s hand presses a posy of flowers to Broderick’s chest, and she looks him straight in the eye. Broderick’s face is to camera, shoulders squared, arms loosely at his side. He looks right into the lens.

The Polaroid 20×24

Only six of these cameras exist today. Andy Warhol used one to take the Polaroid pictures he took of Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others; now photographers have to rent the cameras from private foundations and studios many years in advance. The cameras are 25.2” wide, 40.94” long, and 59.06” high; they are raised and lowered by a crank and have no flash. Each one weighs about 200 pounds. The film processor is built into the back of the camera, which looks like a box with a lens on the front. When the film is ready, the photographer gets down on her knees in front of the camera and pulls the print out with both hands as if she were delivering a baby.

Prom, 2007 & 2008

Mary Ellen Mark rented Andy Warhol’s old 20×24 Polaroid camera to take pictures of high school proms for a special exhibit she was planning about rites of passage. Previous 20×24 projects of hers include rodeos; Bombay brothels; sets of twins from across the United States; and circuses from three different countries. Schools had to apply to be chosen for her project and were only considered if the dance was held on the school premises.

Charlottesville High School, April 26th, 2008

It was raining outside; as we entered the gym lobby, I patted the top of my head to make sure my hair was in place and drove several bobby pins deeper into my scalp. I winced. The woman at the salon who had put my hair up into elaborate pin curls for the occasion might as well have soldered my hair in place: it was not going to budge. My boyfriend, walking next to me, slipped on the roll of fabric that had been stuck to the floor with electrical tape in an imitation of a red carpet. The attendance office secretaries taking tickets attempted to straighten their faces, but our antics, along with the comical three-inch height advantage I had over my boyfriend, had not escaped their notice. I had been trying to convince myself that my Andy and I were the same height for half a year, but in heels it was impossible to escape the reality of the situation: my boyfriend was short and I should have worn flats.

We were among the first to step into the gym to have a look at the decorations, cardboard cutouts of cityscapes meant to elaborate upon our prom’s theme, “Knight on the Town.” The student body had voted on this dubious title a few weeks earlier (I wrote in my own suggestion, “Knight at the Roxbury,” which was, unfortunately, ignored). The cutouts did not last very long: a breeze from the gym’s fans blew them over, and they were subsequently trampled. Andy would not dance with me, so we stood silently by the refreshment table, drinking sherbet punch to pass the time. I had not been told that it was unfashionable to show up to prom before at least 9:30 PM, or that it was even less fashionable to come sober.

There were a few adults I did not recognize milling around the gym lobby wearing school passes around their necks, dressed head to foot in black.

Andy tried to crack jokes about them. “Did they think it was a funeral? I mean, I know I dressed badly, but, I mean, come on!”

I laughed weakly. One of the women approached us about having our picture taken. With nothing better to do, we accepted, though we had never heard of Mary Ellen Mark and had no idea why she wanted to take pictures of us. The woman in black led us into my high school’s theater and let the doors close behind us. The black box, normally empty except for risers and a mess of chairs, was full of equipment: lights, lighting boards, rigging, and, in the center, a large and anachronistic camera.

We were propelled toward a mark on the floor before the camera and the full complement of staff that accompanied it. Someone thrust a piece of paper in front of my nose: some sort of consent form to be signed by my mother at a later date. Mary Ellen Mark stepped out from behind a curtain and introduced herself. For someone as famous as she was, she was very approachable, serene. She wore her hair in two thick braids on either side of her head and rested her hands on her stomach as she spoke to us—to me, because Andy was fiddling with his tie. Mark had me look into the lens directly, showed me how to loosen my hand, tugged on my dress so it sat too high on my hips. She turned Andy’s body to the side and had him look up at me, then put my hand in his. She kept our bodies at a distance and told me she wanted it to look awkward. The bright lights shone on me hotly.

“I hope she makes me look as pretty as you do,” Andy whispered, his dryness evident even at a whisper as Mark tipped his head back further.

“Could you not be an asshole, just for a little while?” I asked.

“Sure thing. I’m sorry. I love you, even when you wear heels.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Aren’t you gonna say it back?”

“Keep still!” yelled an assistant. The lights around the camera grew bright and expanded into brilliance; the shutter sounded four times. I dropped Andy’s hand. A month later, I ended our six month-long relationship and our photo came out in People magazine.

Facebook, June 13, 2008 at 9:41am

Leise Hook › Helen Alston: Helen! I was at the Mary Ellen Mark talk last night at the Paramount and she showed the picture she took of you at prom!! You look gorgeous! She also said your date was madly in love with you. Famous photographers spreading rumors about your love life?? Damn, girl…

McGuffey Art Gallery, August 15th, 2008

When she finished the series, Mary Ellen Mark toured around the country in a joint lecture and exhibition series featuring some of her favorite prom photos. The tour came to each of the cities in which she took pictures. Charlottesville was its last stop before heading up to the Guggenheim for a yearlong stay. At prom, I only caught a quick glimpse of our photographs before we were pushed off of our marks and into the back room to do brief interviews with People and a local Charlottesville magazine. One of our prints had made it into the exhibition; I waited for a few weeks for the gallery traffic to die down and went to see the picture on my own.

My first thought upon viewing the photograph was that I was ugly. My dress was hitched up so high on my hips that I looked pregnant and my hair was pulled back from my face so severely that my hairline appeared to be actively receding. My lips are pursed, my legs planted too far apart. I was large and obscene next to Andy and he looked like a child next to me, slouching, as he did, without any assistance. His shock of brown hair was in desperate need of a pair of intervening scissors. He was nearly twenty and I was not yet eighteen, but in the photo I was years older, lonely, detached.

I looked at our faces. Andy was overeager, as usual, a puppy in his church suit and borrowed tie. His expression was not contrived, unlike so many of his interests, or perhaps my interest in his interests. There was so much trust in his eyes that even looking at the photograph two months after I ended our relationship, I found myself feeling angry for doing so, and still angrier that I had never seen him look at me like that before.

In the photograph I am not wearing my glasses and my eyes are wide and lost as a doll’s. If Andy’s eyes are hopeful, mine are pleading: to get out of the light, to resettle my dress, to let go of his hand. My eyes are full of misery, but the great tragedy in this photograph is that the person I was in the picture could not see how much he loved me, although anyone who looks at our portrait now can see it plain.

C’Ville Weekly, Issue #20.23

“’I’m always interested in rites of passage,” Mark had told me, by way of explaining her interest in proms. It occurs to me that with a camera like this, so different than the handheld gadgets that pervade our lives now, the photograph itself regains some of its ceremony, its 19th-century solemnity, the feeling that having your picture taken actually changes you in some way. Indeed, the four photographs of Helen and Andy now tacked to the wall contain such bare confrontation of who they are, such a feeling of stop for a moment and look, that I feel I might be seeing them more fully than I would if I looked into their living faces.” Erika Howsare


Stumped, as usual, by the request for information about herself presented in the third
person, HELEN ALSTON finds herself thinking of important details to share in this contributor’s note. She surrenders her astrological sign (Sagittarius), her shoe size (9 ½), and her location (never too far from the water). The rest of her life is forthcoming.