In her new photo book, Jona Frank reconstructs vivid scenes from her youth
Through lavish set design and a cast of actors, Cherry Hill is a coming-of-tale tale about a child struggling with the confinements of domestic life.
- Ayla Angelos
- 4 December 2020
“Cherry Hill is a story about a girl growing up and discovering photography,” says Jona Frank, an LA-based portrait photographer who’s work has extensively covered youth culture. “On a deeper level, it’s a family story; a record of lives once lived and shared.”
Of how Cherry Hill came to fruition, it began when Jona began to compile her last book The Modern Kids – a documentation of young boxers in England who were part of a boxing club in the Liverpudlian suburbs of Ellesmere Port. Over the course of three years, she’d visit the club to take portraits, commuting to the suburbs from Liverpool with 80s music playing from all corners. This momentarily reminded her of a time in high school, during which Jona was commuting for work between Cherry Hill and Philadelphia.
“Something happened on these visits to England,” she says. “They began to feel like time travel; the community made me have some sensory recall of the back and forth from Philadelphia to Cherry Hill.” Then, on one noteworthy afternoon in the office supply store Staples, Melt With You by the band Modern English was blaring through the speakers which took Jona back to her 16-year-old self. Instantly nostalgic, the photographer began taking notes and formulating narratives about her childhood spent in Cherry Hill. “They stayed with me and I kept thinking about how I could build a project around these stories.”
Jona began to unfold the memories of her past, resulting in a lengthy process and, in turn, an impressive project. Referring to the new publication – published by The Monacelli Press – as a “family story”, the photographs within are so much a record of her life as they are a reenactment. The production of Cherry Hill, in this sense, is not too dissimilar from a film. Not only did Jona work hard to reproduce the set and production design, costumes, props and wardrobe, she also cast a set of actors to play her family and herself as a child. This, of course, posed some challenges. “The young girl, who plays me on the cover, had moved to Chicago,” she says. “So in addition to all the other challenges, we had to fly her and her mum and sister out from Chicago. There were a lot of moving pieces.”
Fortunately for Jona, she has a good deal of friends who work in the film industry. This came to good use in terms of building the sets, wallpapering and creating the rooms of her childhood home – a process that involved contacting the owner of her old house in Santa Monica and asking for permission to use the house for three weeks. “Everything opened up from there,” she adds. “We essentially created a large-scale installation. It was an amazing experience.” Not to mention that she’d involved the entire neighbourhood, as seen in the photograph Wreck, where all the children in the area pose in front of her camera for the recreation of the yearbook photos, lavished in costume, hair and makeup.
Past works involve Jona utilising her medium to document topics on hierarchies in American school life – as seen in her debut book High School – as well as religious youth with aspirations to become Republican politicians. With the theme of youth remaining centrefold, all of her past works draw a compassionate account from an outsider’s perspective. Meanwhile, Cherry Hill turns everything inwards; it’s an intimate, autobiographical depiction of her upbringing in New Jersey. Starring actor Laura Dern as her strict mother, the exceptionally poised photographs elaborately allude to a young girl’s struggle growing up in a stifling suburban dwelling.
A mammoth project no less, the process behind Cherry Hill was remedial. Jona would find herself referring back to family photographs, pulling out references and bringing them into her modern resurrection. “Laura [who played her mother] definitely absorbed these and miraculously took on the facial expressions and the posture of my mother,” she says. “It was a bit haunting for me watching her transform.” It’s important to note that Jona never wanted to accurately represent her family photographs in this book, rather she wanted it to denote the ambivalence of a memory. What's more is that these memories can have great affect on the person that you can turn out to be. “They are memories of moments I saw in my world as a child, and also how I pictured myself in the world as a child. So, when my father said I could be a nun or a nurse when I grew up, I wanted to show what I pictured in my head when he said it. And, I think memory is complicated.”
Amongst the repetitive scenes of vintage wallpaper and familial feelings of a coming-of-age tale, Cherry Hill is a documentation of the trials and tribulations of growing up – the feeling of not quite fitting in, or having to squeeze into family ideals and pressures. In the opening page, Jona writes: “For every girl, in every town, who ever thought, what else?” Here, she wholeheartedly offers up support and hopes that they, too, can find solace in her pictures. “I conceived this with the intent to encourage young women to go out into the world,” she concludes, “to think bigger and create.”
Cherry Hill by Jona Frank is available at The Monacelli Press.
Jona Frank: Cherry Hill. Cover (Copyright © Jona Frank 2020)
About the Author
Ayla is currently covering Jenny as It’s Nice That’s online editor. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.