Synopses & Reviews
PHOTO FINISH: HIGHER CALLING
In 2005, the photographer Jona Frank came across an article in The New Yorker by Hanna Rosin, about Patrick Henry, an evangelical college in Virginia. The article, which Rosin later expanded into the book "God's Harvard," discussed the school's commitment to preparing young Christians for careers in politics. Frank was intrigued by the descriptions of the students most of whom had been home-schooled prior to enrolling at Patrick Henry who aimed to "glorify God with their appearance," and who seemed possessed of an assuredness beyond their years. In 2006, she headed to Virginia, and during the next two years she spent time photographing students at Patrick Henry and their families. The resulting catalogue, "Right," presents a visual world of simplicity and organization clothes are plain (but for the occasional stars-and-stripes tie), walls mostly bare. Frank finds her subjects' vulnerability. They are, she writes in her epilogue, at "the pivotal moment between exploration and discovery," about to enter a world "at odds with the homes they grew up in." The New Yorker
The timing of the release of Jona Frank's new book Right could not be better. The general election is rapidly approaching, and the outgoing administration has relied heavily on Evangelical Christians and the Christian Right as a base of power. Although John McCain is reportedly struggling to capitalize fully on the relationship the Bush Republicans built with Evangelicals, the group remains an important factor in the presidential race.
But while the election year drama provides the perfect milieu into which to publish a book like Right, the electoral influence of Evangelical Christians is only a small part of the story told by Frank in her portrait of Patrick Henry College (PHC), which has been called "Harvard for Homeschoolers."
Michael Farris founded Patrick Henry College in 2000 with a goal of creating an Ivy-League-style institution for homeschooled far-right-wing youngsters. As Hannah Rosin, author of God's Harvard, a book about PHC, notes in her introduction to Right, the college is charged with educating the people that will "Shape the culture and take back the nation" for the Christian Right. "The students who held demigod status on campus fell into two types," writes Rosin of her first observations of the college, "the ones who received perfect scores on their SATs, and the ones who were chosen for White House internships. They were some of the most anal, competitive kids I had ever come across, and the atmosphere on campus was intense."
Frank, who has devoted much of her career as a photographer and filmmaker to documenting cultures of adolescence, began her series of portraits of PHC students after reading a story Rosin wrote about the college for the New Yorker in 2005. "I felt like I had walked into a strange time warp," writes Frank of her first visit to PHC, where students wore "pressed shirts and patriotic ties," and were "incredibly articulate and specific always respectful and courteous."
The PHC students Frank photographed do possess a certain throwback sensibility compared to what we might envision as the look of contemporary college students. There are photographs those of Juli Schuttger and her family, for example in which the students look completely shut-off from the "outside world" of "typical" American youths. Outward attempts at individuality and style are nearly absent from many of the portraits. But in many ways the young people in these photographs seem completely of the moment: When else but now would a 20-year-old sophomore domestic policy major named Jordan wear a stars and stripes lapel pin that also happens to be shaped like a stealth bomber?
Frank has included multiple photographs of many of the students, even delving into the family lives of four. In a majority of th
Patrick Henry College is the higher education institution of choice among politically far-right young people aspiring to enter the conservative power elite. The explicit mission of PHC is to cultivate leaders to take American politics and culture back to God, through careers in politics and entertainment. Acclaimed photographer Jona Frank presents an honest, intimate, and eye-opening portrait of the school and its students. Frank's photos eschew cultural politicking of the left or the right, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about a school and a youth movement with the potential to produce many of tomorrow's leaders.
About the Author
Jona Frank's photographs are in the permanent collection of the Getty and SFMOMA, among others.
Hannah Rosin is a journalist and authority on Patrick Henry College.
Colin Westerbeck is a leading photography historian.