It’s ironic that Jona Frank’s new photography exhibit “Church and State” and her book Right: Portraits From The Evangelical Ivy league are appearing at the end of the George W. Bush years. Frank’s studies of conservative students at the evangelical Patrick Henry College in Virginia examine some of the “soldiers for Bush” who helped him win reelection in 2004.
Frank, who studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California, became intrigued by the students at Patrick Henry after reading an article about the college in The New Yorker. She contacted the article’s author, Hanna Rosin, who introduced her to the students and administration. Initially, Frank took pictures to include in a project about the different stages of boyhood, but “I realized after the first trip that it was a bigger story, the purpose and the vision that these kids were sharing-to take the nation back to God. “Her project grew into a book of photographs and text (including student essays), published by Chronicle.
The students at Patrick Henry are mostly home-schooled, says Frank-in fact, the college was created to provide continuing education for the home-schooled. They are almost all Caucasian (the college accepted three African-Americans during the last semester Frank photographed there), and come from large families (two series of joined photos in the show portray students accompanied by families of nine or ten children).
The boys invariably wear suits and ties. In one portrait, “Justin,” age 19, wears a dark suit and a tie with an American flag pattern. While some would argue that it’s disrespectful to wear flags, Frank observes: “I think they would see it as a way that they express their views about honoring their country. Also, a lot of what I’m interested in, in my portraiture, is how clothing communicates our views.”
“Roommates, Fall 2007,” tricks the viewer into thinking that these two young men, seated at desks in their dorm room, are twins, when actually, they just happen to be wearing the same rather dorky plaid shirt.
As for the girls at Patrick Henry, “generally there were two types of girls on campus. There were the girls that don’t cut their hair and wear homemade clothing and no makeup. There are girls who are much more contemporary and shop at Ann Taylor and really try to have the young female Washington look.”
In Frank’s book, we see “Elisa,” who was “very much admired because she worked for Karl Rove,” wearing a trench coat, looking modern, and take-charge. In contrast, “Julie”, the subject of several photos in “Church and State” wears homemade gowns and has a look that dates back at least to the 1930s.
“Church and State” may seem amusing or irritating to some liberal minds, but it offers an unbiased look at a lifestyle that seeks to retain its footing. Like the best of documentary photographers, Frank has captured her subjects in a way that shows that they trusted her.
“Church and State” is on view at Sherry Frumkin Gallery, 3026 Airport Avenue, through March 15.