Swaying a little, I quickly caught my balance and centred myself. The rickety ladder settled with purpose as I held up a large photograph for Jona Frank to see. “Is it straight, Jona?”
I was here to interview Jona Frank for LOOK/15 at her exhibition at the WARP in Liverpool, but had also offered to help her install it. Like the interview itself, installing the photographs was following a round-about route as if obeying the laws of Brownian motion. “A little to the left, a little to the right, back…no, perhaps left is better…!” But after five hours, I had at least got the measure of the rickety ladder and by the end of the day we packed up knowing that the installation was almost complete for the next day’s opening.
The next morning Jona texted me: “Hi, I’ve re-thought the installation – any chance you could give me a hand?”
Three hours later, after re-positioning all of the photographs we stood back in judgement. The pictures looked straight. “No, those are crooked!” she uttered. “Absolutely!” I said, wondering which was out of line. Jona was right of course. But I was realising that it was this fastidious attention to detail that had made her the photographer she is.
Thinking that an interview should involve a few questions, I finally asked about her approach.
“When I started the “High School” work I was determined to finish the project,” she confided. “Before High School, I loved beginning a project because beginnings are full of possibility, but really staying with things for the long haul was hard. But, with High School, I committed. I had a very specific plan and an almost metronomic approach. I measured the distance to all my subjects; pre-arranged the locations; had a very strong idea of what I was looking for”.
Not myself being a “completer-finisher”, I thought about how often my own attempts at photography had been let down by insufficient planning. “So, Jona, what advice would you give to a young photographer like me just starting out?” – I half-joked.
“Go slow and make notes. Observe!” she replied. “Have a sense of what you are looking for before you start shooting. Don’t make your quest all encompassing. It’s better to be attentive to specifics”.
We finally sat down and looked at the completed installation. The photographs of young boxers from Ellesmere Port struck a deep chord in me. They almost quivered with the emotions of drained boxers coming down from their adrenaline highs.
It struck me that they were different to her earlier work. They seemed “looser” and more emotionally charged. “Jona, when I look at your earlier photographs, for example your work “RIGHT“, it seems that you are subtly “sending up’ the subjects; if not the people themselves then the institutions they inhabit. Is this so?”
She looked at me, hesitating before answering. A short cold silence passed through us. Steeped in the Anglo-Saxon idiom of using irony and comedy as a way of venting opinion, I felt strongly that this must be the case. Surely these photographs had been taken “tongue in cheek”?
“No”, she finally said, breaking what seemed a slightly awkward moment. “I try to reflect back what I see”.
A second silence settled. I wasn’t sure I believed her. She has been described as “an anthropological photographer”, inspired by the German portrait and documentary photographer August Sander. The “New Objectivity” that surrounded Sander sought an all-business attitude, a sense of pragmatism and a rejection of romantic idealism, and I had certainly got an impression from spending time with her of a business-like attitude to her work.
She interrupted my thoughts.
“I was criticised for not taking a polemical stance in those photographs. The students portrayed in RIGHT have a different belief system to mine, but that doesn’t make me less interested in their choices. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I am interested in how young people begin to define themselves. I am interested in group identity, in how people negotiate the world,” she went on. “I try to set aside my own cultural assumptions.”
“The question of trust is important to me”, she continued. “I observe my subjects, but the process is collaborative. The process is a dialogue. I don’t ask them to change how they present themselves to me. I apply an order and a control. I isolate them in a specific place, for a specific time, but I try and show them as they are.”
“This work” I said coming back to ‘The Modern Kids’, “feels different to your earlier work, more emotionally engaged”.
“Yes,” she replied. “I am not quite so strict in my approach anymore. I no longer measure distances,” she laughed, “the narrative is becoming stronger.”
Later that evening, I was able to see just how engaged Jona had been with her subjects. We were at a screening of her film “Baby Faced Assassin” at the Small Cinema in Liverpool. Paul Butler the “Baby Faced Assassin” himself, former British Bantam boxing champion, sat a few seats away from me, as did his Mum, sister, girlfriend and several other boxing mates.
At the end of the screening there was polite applause in the way only an English audience can pull off. The lights went on. With what felt like a sense of deep respect for Jona, the family approached her to say how much they had enjoyed the film. But it wasn’t only respect. There was affection too. My earlier doubts about her motives evaporated.
“Apart from Sander, who else has influenced your vision” I asked, driving to Rampworx Skatepark in Aintree where she had taken photographs of skateboarders.
“When I was in school, I wrote my senior thesis on Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank. I had grown up in a suburban shoebox and was very curious to see more, so when certain requirements were fulfilled and school completed, I started taking road trips. Those early road trips had a big effect on me and you could say lead me to Ellesmere Port. It was in a youth hostel in New Orleans where I met my friend from the Wirral.” she said. Hence the work on “The Modern Kids”.
“I love the work of Lindsay Morris particularly ‘You are You’, which depicts a summer camp for gender-nonconforming children and their families. David Hilliard’s work is absolutely beautiful – particularly his triptychs. I love thinking about them, the way life is puzzled together. Of course, there is Joel Sternfeld and Bruce Weber and Richard Avedon…and…Gus Powell, do you know his work, the street photographer? I think you would like it. It’s not unlike yours. It’s theatre. I really admire it, perhaps because it’s quite different to my work.”
“Music makes me think about photography”, she said, enigmatically, but before I could pursue the thought, she cut in… “Please Stop! Can you pull in here?”
I turned into a lay-by. “Would you mind if we turned the car around? I just saw one of my photographs on a wall!”
We drew up beside the Athol Vaults, a boarded-up pub on Liverpool’s Dock Road. There could not have been a more apt place of display for her photograph. I looked at her – her face had lit up and in that moment I understood something about her photographs.
Jona Frank’s Biography, Publications
Jona’s new book: The Modern Kids, just released in the UK.
Social Media and Links
Jona Frank’s photography can be seen on her web-site: www.jonafrank.com
Jona’s agent, Shelley De Soto can be contacted on her web-site at the address: http://www.desotogallery.com
I wish to thank Jona Frank for sharing her time, patience and insights with me.
Jona Frank showed her work as part of the Liverpool International Photography Festival 2015.
Interview © Tony Cearns
Further interviews by Tony Cearns can be seen at Sideways Eye
Artist’s Photographs © Jona Frank
Jona Frank was born in New Jersey and moved to California to attend film school at USC. Her photography is primarily portraiture and her first book, High School, looks at social groups in suburban high schools throughout the US. Her second book, Right, is about a college of home-schooled kids who are being groomed to be the future of the Republican Party. Jona says her film work grew out of her photography. Her first short, Catholic School, premiered at the Sundance FIlm Festival and was bought by Bravo, showed internationally, and lead to documentary work for PBS. Artistically, Jona is interested in blurring the lines between still and motion and began to create gallery and museum installation pieces, using motion picture film with skaters and ROTC recruits. Jona is interested in how people learn to negotiate the world and find their place and group.