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Right: Portraits of the Evangelical Ivy League

Sept 18, 2008

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By Conor Risch


Cover of RIGHT

© Chronicle Books, photo by Jona Frank

Right: Portraits of the Evangelical Ivy League, by Jona Frank


Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League
By Jona Frank
Introduction by Hanna Rosin, Essay by Colin Westerbeck
Chronicle Books, September 2008
Hard Cover, 140 Pages, $35.00

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?


Right: Portraits of the Evangelical Ivy League

Sept 18, 2008

By By Conor Risch


pdn/photos/stylus/39338-right-cover-large.jpg

Right: Portraits of the Evangelical Ivy League, by Jona Frank


Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League
By Jona Frank
Introduction by Hanna Rosin, Essay by Colin Westerbeck
Chronicle Books, September 2008
Hard Cover, 140 Pages, $35.00

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 the pictures the subjects are posing, but documentary photographs of classes, social activities and the home lives of some of the students are interspersed throughout the pages. Frank is present with her camera at a “Hoedown” and the formal “Liberty Ball,” for student elections and the engagement rituals and marriage of two students.

Her studies of the four families include candid photographs of homeschooling in action, and two group shots in which parents and children are arranged by height. For the two largest families, one with nine children and the other with ten, Frank included individual portraits of each family member shot against the same background “in order to both emphasize the homogeneity of their lives and to let subtle differences show through,” as contributor Colin Westerbeck notes in his essay “Closing the Circle.” These sets of individual portraits, one of which is laid out over six pages and the other of which occupies the book’s only gatefold, also make one aware of the sheer size of these families, the existence of which we can’t help but associate with fundamentalist religion.

The text contributions, which include Hanna Rosin’s introduction and the essay by Westerbeck, who currently teaches photography at UCLA and USC and was Curator of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, are essential to the experience of Right. Throughout the book, Frank’s interviews with her subjects help to create a more complete understanding of who these young people are, where they come from and just what it is they hope to accomplish, while Rosin contextualizes PHC and Westerbeck examines how Frank’s compositions and the book as a whole constitute an “in-depth essay” that offers readers “not just a chance to see her subjects, but a way to think about them.”

Westerbeck writes that many of the students “know how to pose for a photograph,” and that in some portraits “the pose has been honed to perfection,” evidence, he says, of their lofty goals to take on major roles in public life.

In her author’s note, which closes the book, Frank writes,  “In some ways, it’s the summer of ’69 at PHC, and they are experiencing their own counterculture.” Yet instead of outwardly railing against the establishment, PHC students dress and carry themselves in such a way that one can easily see them infiltrating the nation’s halls of power and remaking them from the inside, an impression solidified by the series of shots of PHC students interning for congressional representatives and senatorial candidates, at Slate.com, Fox News and at the White House. Unlike more typical young men and women, who often use their personal style to express their individuality or association with a particular culture—and, some might argue, often end up conforming in the process—the individuality of the PHC student lies in their belief system, which they perceive to be nonconformist and even under attack.

In her introduction, Rosin writes that PHC students “study writers and philosophers Christian schools have long avoided because they want to know what the intellectual elite know,” noting that Farris refers to this as “opposition research.” In many ways Right serves a similar purpose for those who may regard Evangelical Christians as an ominous growing force in American culture and politics. It allows readers to see these ambitious young people as they are: a bit boringly dressed when compared to their contemporaries at other colleges, for sure, but uniformed for the culture wars and far more prepared to inherit the nation than your average college kid.

 
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