James, Wirral Club, 2013
It’s important to note that Jona Frank is a female photographer. It’s not just that she was an outsider in a male dominated sport and culture; that alone was probably hard enough to overcome while shooting in the gyms and earning the trust of the young men she was photographing and interviewing. In the Fall of 2010, Jona Frank began to make portraits at an amateur boxing club just outside of Liverpool in a suburb called Ellesmere Port. The trust and relationship that she fought hard to earn between her and her subjects, these young men, these boys, shows in the way they reveal themselves to her and her camera. Their puffery in front of the camera (especially before their bouts), their vulnerability, the way they seem proud or scared to death in their portraits. Whether or not they won or were defeated, their emotion comes across in the honesty that is shown in these portraits of young men struggling, quite literally, with their own coming-of-age and their sense of self as defined by their masculinity.
The Modern Kids combines the qualities of formal fine-art portraits with the mystery and intimacy of the sport of boxing. The book has rich saturated color images, and the size of the book is large compared to many photo books published currently. It reminds me of the gorgeous coffee table photo books of the 80s & 90s.
Frank’s lighting of her subjects is simple and direct, and her environmental shots of the fighters in their neighborhoods or their schools is also a straight documentary style. The tones and colors that come out in their uniforms or bruises is a subtle complement to each other; a visual irony that strengthens the work even more. Even the sponsor printed on of some of the uniforms is an ironic twist. “Savas and Savage” worn by an innocent-faced boy comes across as complementary opposites much like the tired boxing cliché ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’.
Ultimately, Frank’s portraits are not cliché — they are honest and tell the story of this group of boxers, this group of young men, coming of age in a sport that almost defies the 21st century life they live. Boxing comes down to how one spends months and months training the body to do what it needs to do against an opponent. The sport relies on muscles and endurance and mental focus. No fancy equipment, no carbon fiber whirligig to give one person an advantage over the other. Like the suburb of Liverpool where these photos were made, boxing has a foot in the past while grasping its contemporary purpose. Frank’s photographs provide a record of a sport and a community whose presence is slowly fading.
Photographer and filmaker Bruce Weber writes, “Although some of the most gentlemanly people I have ever met are boxers, for Jona to go into a boxing gym as a woman is a very rare thing. I used to visit a gym out in Las Vegas called Johnny Tocco’s that had a sign which read, “No Women Allowed.” But Jona’s boxers let her have this experience. They wanted to share their moment of glory with her, and she in turn made heroes of them in her photographs. These pictures will be placed on the mantles and the walls in their homes. People will take notice. Their hard work will matter.”
Jona Frank is an award-winning filmmaker and photographer. She has exhibited her films and photographs internationally and her work is in several prominent collections including Getty Museum, SF MoMA, and Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Frank has published two books: High School and RIGHT: Portraits of the Evangelical Ivy League.
Bruce Weber is an American fashion photographer and filmmaker. He is most widely known for his ad campaigns for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Pirelli, Abercrombie & Fitch, Revlon, and Gianni Versace, as well as his work for Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, Elle, Life, Interview, and Rolling Stone magazines.
The Modern Kids — Jona Frank (with essay by Bruce Weber)
Published by Kehrer Verlag — April 2015 (U.S. publication date)
Originally published at F-Stop Magazine.