(CNN) -- Cecelia Owens just couldn't bear to get rid of the photo of her and the young man whose heart she broke a few months after junior prom.
She kept their prom picture in a box in a closet and rarely looked at it. She disliked her date's "horrible" suit and the fact that the photographer made her look "like a china doll," as she sat while he stood. Still, she couldn't part with the young man in that ugly suit.
"Several times over the years, I moved and packed up and ran across the picture and thought 'I can't get rid of it,'" said Owens, 47. "I thought maybe I'll see him again one day and we can share that memory."
Corsages and tokens from prom night eventually fade, but images are indelible snapshots of the way we were, one of the few keepsakes mostly unchanged in generations. In an era when the average prom night costs north of $1,000 and dress codes complicate the perfect outfit, the power of the prom photo remains timeless.
Beyond projecting personal style, they reflect socioeconomic and cultural values from an American rite of passage, documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark said.
"The photograph becomes an object," said Mark, whose new book, "Prom" is a collection of portraits from high school proms across the country. "The pictures are about detail and looking at the subject matter and who they are, what they're wearing and economic status."
Beneath the surface lie deeply personal stories of love, heartbreak and the moments before bigger steps. Janie Lambert and her fiance had other things on their minds when they attended her senior prom in March 1970 in Knoxville, Tennessee. They were to be married in May and her husband, a high school graduate who was in the Air Force, was set to ship out in June. Earlier that day, they'd been searching for an apartment.
"We decided at the last minute to go, I don't why, because we had been apartment-hunting all day. I guess because our friends were there," said Lambert, who shared her story on iReport. "I did not have a new prom dress, so I took the same one I wore for his senior prom and put a blue velvet band on the empire waist. I did not want a corsage, so he gave me a single red rose."
When the time came for their daughter to attend prom in the 1990s, Lambert, who will celebrate her 42nd wedding anniversary this year, couldn't help but compare the differences.
"Looking at our prom photos, for us, they were just a fill-in moment," she said. "My daughter had the limo, the dress, all that. I suppose it meant something more to her."
There are always people who see the prom as preparation for life's next big event. Persephone Taylor Gary and her boyfriend went fabric shopping so his tie and pocket square would match her long, white dress. But then his mother grounded him "for life" for breaking curfew, preventing him from attending the Miami Northwestern Senior High School prom.
"I was like, 'Really? My prom is in two weeks,'" she said. "I was scrambling."
Luckily, she had someone in mind, a junior who had struck up a conversation with her while she kept stats for the baseball team. She told him she had a boyfriend but they still hit it off and exchanged numbers.
"I called him up and said I have no date. He pounced on that opportunity to take me," she said.
Her boyfriend didn't see the stand-in as a threat, but little did he know that after that night, his girlfriend and her new date would be "inseparable," said Taylor, who shared her story on iReport.
She broke up with her boyfriend a week later and started dating Britt Taylor. The two parted ways when she went to college, but reconnected seven years later and married soon after.
The theme of their wedding? A starry decor to match the theme of their prom.
"I think that the way that Britt and I met and the way things transpired was kind of magical and I thought it was worth recreating," she said.
"Everything was kinda serendipitous ... after four years of passing each other in school and nothing and then that one day sitting on the bench, and then my boyfriend getting grounded, it really just happened very magically."
For many couples, prom is the first major milestone in the relationship, and the image from that night is a marker of their growing dedication to one another. Katherine Steele and her boyfriend, Tom, attended his senior prom in 1995 at Renton High School in Seattle; the next year, the Marine Corps reservist was wearing a uniform in the picture from her senior prom.
She keeps the images in a cedar chest that has accompanied the family on each of their 12 moves since they married in 1997. The chest and all the keepsakes it contains are a testament to their devotion to each other, said Steele, who shared her story on iReport.
"It's like a snapshot of who we were at that time in our lives," she said. "The first one is when we started dating and with each one you can see how much he changed and I changed. And, despite all the changes in work or military moves or 9/11, you change together and make it work."
For nearly 29 years, Cecelia Owens regarded her prom picture with the boy in the homely suit as a symbol of love lost. No matter who Owens was with, and even when she was married, she always compared her partner to the person in that photo.
"I guess I hoped that maybe one day we'd get back together, so I never let that go," she said. "I kept that part of him inside me."
Her dream came true last year, when she reconnected with him in their hometown of Opp, Alabama, 29 years after she broke up with him for someone else.
"I said I could just be seeing an old friend or sparking up an old flame," she said. "We spent eight hours talking that day and have been together ever since."
The pair married in January in Panama City, Florida, where Owens lives. Now, she's getting ready to move back to Alabama to be with him.
That old photo became a symbol of what's possible.
"We both feel that if we had not gone through the experiences we went through, we might not have stayed together. We now know the mistakes we made with other people and we're not going make them with each other. We're committed to making this work for the rest of our lives," said Owens, who shared her story on iReport.
"To end up with your prom date and know that the end of my life will be as good as the beginning is more than I could have ever dreamed of."