In her photographs and films, Jona Frank has spent much of the last decade reliving the adolescent years most of us would prefer to forget. For her latest portrait series, a survey and monograph on American adolescents shown extensively for the first time in the Robert Koch Gallery's "Jona Frank: High School," the local artist traveled to public high schools around the country.
A self-proclaimed outsider who watched the cool kids from the sidelines when she was a teen, Frank understands the dangers of not fitting in. "Belonging meant everything and feeling left out could lead to tragic consequences," she writes in her artist's statement. "When I was in high school in the '80s some chose suicide; today it's homicide."
Something of a sociological study on how teenagers form hierarchies and experiment with identities, the series asserts that high school is a "microcosm for society at large." Frank tries to capture her subjects flatteringly; each social group -- the band geeks, the ROTC candidates, and the hip ravers -- is shot in the same location at an equal distance from the camera, a technique that preserves the cohesion of the respective gangs while paying tribute to the subjects' individuality. Though wildly different from one another, the teens have more than age in common. They define themselves by their appearance, playing dress-up with elaborate outfits that make their affiliations clear. But the unpredictable nature of adolescence is never too far behind: One gets the feeling that just a furry animal backpack, platform heels, and a lollipop could turn Katherine, the Girl Scout, into Angela, the "candy raver."
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For her next series, Frank will move on to different age groups, though she's obviously not yet tired of examining how appearances define who we are: "Uniform" will look at the clothing of various occupations, from cops and firemen to bike messengers and dot-commers.