Perhaps because of the lack of progress on my own high school photography assignment I decided to take a look through Jona Frank’s High School recently. I came across High School for the first time about a year ago while researching for another project; while it didn’t fit what I was looking for it did catch my eye so I made a note to check it out when I had time. Since I had to review a photo book for class I thought why not take the opportunity to look more closely at High School.
The book was first published in 2004 and included a forward by Gus Van Sant, who had just released the film Elephant in 2003, so it isn’t that surprising that he would bring up the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. He doesn’t focus on it however, in fact he only mentions it specifically in one sentence, several paragraphs into the forward, when he brings up a story about Elephant. Van Sant says that “the kids from Columbine were like the kids we filmed and like the kids Jona photographed.” This quote really gets to the heart of High School, which is that it may show very specific individuals, from very specific times and places, but at the same time they are stand-ins for any high school kid from any time or place.
Towards the back of the book Frank has all 58 images printed about the size of a yearbook photo, sectioned off into smaller groupings, and below them are the individuals first name, the state they are from and a short descriptor printed in a slightly larger font. She doesn’t say whether these labels were thought up by the individuals or if she came up with them based on her interviews, but they drive home the idea of the high school clique. Some of the groups are literal, like the “Vampire Bunny Trio,” or the four “Bored” students from Montana, but others have been created by Frank. This combination of assigned and chosen groups works extremely well for mirroring the high school dynamic, and plays into the the larger idea of the conflict between each person as an individual and as a representative of an archetype.
The last pages of High School consist of copies of pages from Frank’s working journal for the project. They include outtakes from her sessions and thoughts on high school, both by the artist and the subjects. These quotes take the reader deeper into the high school experience. It is interesting to read some of the correspondence between Frank and her subjects, some from the time of the shoot but other obviously from afterwards. Then there are the musings of the artist, which really take you into the process she went through.
These supplementary parts of the book add a great deal to the images, you find out intimate details about the subjects but you also see how similar each person is, even if they don’t realize it themselves. Not every subject is covered in the included pages from Frank’s journal, but they don’t suffer from it. They stand alone as beautiful, simple portraits of kids at a pivotal time in their lives. Even if you don’t take the time to read about them, each subject was comfortable enough with Frank that you can find out a lot about them from the way they stood and what personal items they may have had.
Overall I think that High School stands out as a lasting record of American life in high school. True some of the characters are dated by the way they dress and the proximity to the Columbine killings, but the roles that each student inhabits aren’t significantly different from those of students from another decade. As simple as they are these images are just as important as the coverage of a major catastrophe, largely because of how universal the events that these children went through are to every high schooler.