Jona Frank: The Modern Kids

The American photographer Jona Frank speaks to Jocks&Nerds about her intense and intimate portraits of amateur boxers in the north of England

“There is this thing that happens when you start observing people you want to photograph. It's this sense of potential. When I talk to people I watch for small movements that might give an idea to how they will look when photographed. It's a feeling, an instinct that is hard to describe. I might feel like I have a sense of someone, but when I look at them through a view camera there is this intimacy and everything else goes away - something new is revealed.”

This is how the American photographer Jona Frank describes her technique, one that her new book The Modern Kids displays in full force. It depicts young amateur boxers in the northern town of Ellesmere Port. In training, you see intense gazes, deliberate poses; after the violence of the bout there’s a sweat-soaked sense of heroism, of having overcome the odds and emerged changed. It feels like she’s stripping away the extraneous and cutting to her subject’s core.

One lasting impression was that I felt like the whole experience was a bit of a time warp

The Modern Kids was the result of a fortuitous series of events, stretching back through Frank’s life. Her interest in boxing began in the early 1990s. She was in Ireland in 1992, just after Michael Carruth had won the welterweight gold medal at the Olympics. While photographing the travelling community, Frank noticed that the boys would always adopt a boxing stance when they posed for the camera.

A few years earlier, while visiting New Orleans, Frank had befriended two boys from northwest England – one of whom, Steve, she stayed in touch with. Come 2010, they met again when she travelled to Britain with her husband. Frank was initially interested in Steve’s 14-year old daughter, and how her teenage world differed from those in America. Knowing of Frank’s interest in adolescence, Steve took her to a boxing gym in Ellesmere Port. Frank immediately found her new subject: “That door just opened, and it was immediate access. It was an amazing thing to have a friend from many years ago as the liaison.” She was captivated both by the boys and their setting. “I kept thinking,” she says, “about that yellow and red wall. I couldn’t get it out of my head.”

Frank’s process generally involves extended immersion into a particular situation. Her first monograph, High School (2004), explored the different subcultures of the titular location; reviewers noted the portraits’ emotional intensity. It was followed by RIGHT (2008), which took aim at a more specific subject – Patrick Henry College in Virginia, an elite university that aims to cultivate evangelical Christian youths to become conservative political leaders. “College students would dress like adults and put on suits just to walk 100 feet to class,” Frank says, “there was such a formalism. I’ve never seen so many young people with that intensity, who had the feeling that they need to change the world hammered into them since they were young.”

Shooting The Modern Kids was quite a different experience. Sequestered from her subjects by the Atlantic Ocean, Frank was unable to fully embed herself in the community, instead having to take several separate trips. “I would say my favourite period,” Frank recounts, “is that of observing, and it was cut short.” Nevertheless, Frank found herself welcomed – not always an easy feat for a woman in the male-dominated enclave of the boxing club. It even surprised Bruce Weber, the acclaimed fashion photographer who wrote a foreword for the book: “The first thing [he] said to me,” recalls Frank, “was ‘how did you do this? How did you get access?” For the boxers, Frank’s repeated visits underscored her dedication – a virtue paramount in their own discipline.

Frank soon found herself integrated in the club’s world, party to the boys’ humour and camaraderie. As well as following the boxers from training to the ring, The Modern Kids also provides glimpses of their lives in Ellesmere Port. Although Frank sensed a familiarity in this environment – “I grew up on the East Coast, between Philadelphia and New York, and the area reminded me of the place in which I grew up” – she also found that town had a palpable sense of stasis. “One lasting impression,” says Frank, “was that I felt like the whole experience was a bit of a time warp.”

The nice thing, as Bruce Weber said, is that these photographs will be placed on their mantelpieces”

It was this feeling that led to the series’ title. In Frank’s own words: “When I photographed the Ellesmere boys I felt like time was suspended. Through the camera nothing about them felt the least bit contemporary. They felt like characters out of a fictional novel. This provoked the title – I wanted people to know that even though their faces evoke the past, these are modern kids.”

The idea that adolescence has its own sort of timelessness informs much of Frank’s work. As she puts it, “I’m really interested in those states of becoming, people at the cusp of adulthood, experimenting with who they are going to become.” Although the context and exact modes change, the process remains the same. “It’s new,” she continues, “for each generation, but it’s all cyclical. It’s interesting how I see things from 20, 30 years ago again, in different places.” Frank sees this series as different from her previous work in the way it cuts beyond apparel to the boxers’ bodies themselves. “When you strip the clothes off,” says Frank, “it’s your skin, your tattoos, your muscles, your attitude. These are the things we carry through our lives, and adolescence is where they start being designed.”

The Modern Kids isn’t the only opus yielded by Frank’s trips to the gym. Find the book’s hidden foldout, and you’ll discover a series of stills from Baby-Faced Assassin, Frank's documentary film that follows the rise of the boxer Paul Butler. When Frank first visited Ellesmere Port, Butler was an emerging young gun; on a return trip, he was fighting for a title. Frank was captivated by his story. As she puts it, “He’s so young, and quiet and unassuming, yet there’s so much weight on his shoulders to be a hero. I was amazed by the way he handled it.” For the kids in Ellesmere Port, he’s a source of inspiration.

Since finishing the book and film, Frank has found her connections to the boxing club remain. “Whenever there’s an exhibition or an event, the boys all comment on the Facebook page, writing things like ‘Why is Alex on the cover? I have a better stomach!'.” She is especially pleased with their reaction to the photographs. “The nice thing, as Bruce Weber said, is that these photographs will be placed on their mantelpieces. These are heroic moments for them.”

With The Modern Kids complete, Frank’s next project is a series of photographs that stage stories from her own childhood. For a photographer whose work so far has focused on capturing people in their own environments, it’s quite a change. “The work I’m doing now – choosing the clothes the girls will be wearing – is almost like casting.” Despite the difference in technique, though, Frank sees a link: “All the series are about exploring my own life, especially this whole period in my early 20s when I was trying to find myself.” After exploring the concept of adolescence through others, now Frank will set her lens on her own past. Given the intimacy, intensity and insight of The Modern Kids, the results are likely to captivate.