When I was a Freshman at Bard College in the late nineties, I was awed by Jill Frank's photography senior thesis To Die 4, a series of candid, yet immaculately lit black and white images of various competitions and nebulous college parties. They resonated through their ability to find poems among unsteady moments and transcend event-photography clichés. I didn't know Jill at the time, but these photographs have stood with me to this day. Fast forward more than a decade, and Frank has continued to make work that blurs the boundaries between tableaux, documentary and reportage. In her most recent series Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained, she approaches teenagers and young adults, focusing on the period of late youth that hovers on awkward and tender. Her mix of portraits and photographs of rituals like beer pong and keg stands tread somewhere between youthful nostalgia and an outsider's gaze, a tension she captures eloquently with her large-format 4x5 film camera. Throughout this work, there is a confusion about how much is orchestrated, what moments are genuine, and where Jill personally fits into the mix. I spoke with Jill to learn more.
Jon Feinstein: You're using a 4x5 camera in a non-traditional way: you reference lo-fi youth culture snapshots, party pics with a stylized precision. How does the 4x5 change these ideas, or your interaction with the people you photograph?
Jill Frank: Well, I am sort of an unlikely large format photographer; I often work in really weird places that aren’t conducive for using a big tripod-bound camera. The view camera certainly influences the interactions I have with strangers, most people find it curious rather than invasive - it can be a conversation starter.
I am intentionally using this camera because it suggests a certain quality of attention is being paid to the subject, which is important to this work. The camera can make situations look more staged and artificial than they actually are, which echoes the posturing tendencies of social behavior. The pictures that work best have productive tension between the controlled elements, the environment and the photographic coincidences and accidents.
Jon Feinstein: How well do you know the people you're photographing? How are you getting "access" to them?
Jill Frank: When I started, I didn’t know anyone, I just approached strangers. I would go to public places around the South that had some sort of free public outdoor party culture and ask people who were engaged in party activities if I could take a picture. After a while I shifted my process and slowed down, I spent some time with people after meeting them, sometimes took pictures, sometimes didn’t, built relationships. I am not really shy about asking people if they want to be in a picture, I only photograph people who want to be photographed.
Jon Feinstein: Where are you in all of this? What's driving you personally to make these pictures?
Jill Frank: I remember moments like these when I was this age, where everything feels at stake. Anxiety about how you could be labeled was very palpable. Your social status could shift from the slightest misstep, you could wear the wrong thing to school and be alienated, or perform the craziest act at a party and be a rockstar. The more excessive and precarious performances with alcohol, sex or drugs, the more likely that failure or successes could have real consequences. In the 90’s we used disposable cameras a lot at parties, and although camera technology changes, the photographic representation of these situations remains lo-fi. The snapshots and Instagram pictures don’t address the seriousness and complexity of the incidents being documented. I feel like my most important coming-of-age experiences were considered superficial, cliché or “in bad taste”, so I am invested in the conundrum of how to recognize and shed light on these performative aspects of our society.
Jon Feinstein: How might these pictures differ if they were made 20 or 50 years ago? Does that really matter?
Jill Frank: I am not sure it matters, or how they would differ exactly. My work is sort of visually reminiscent of press photography from the 1940s era, it is a mix of documentary methods and intentional performances for the camera. Editorial (LIFE) mid-century photographs of teens are really inspiring to me, they were shot with a large format camera and they present subject matter in an almost anthropological way, as if studying a new species. The modern notion of the young adult age as a quantifiable life stage, with its own esoteric rituals, didn’t exist until the post-Depression era in America, so this age range was heavily documented at that time.
Jon Feinstein: There's a been a lot of writing lately about cultural nostalgia, namely our generation's + genX nostalgia for the 80's and 90's (think Urban Outfitters' grunge comeback or Stranger Things). Does nostalgia play out at all in this work?
Jill Frank: I think the nostalgia comes through in the choice of “classic” activities of youth culture rather than more relevant contemporary documentary subject matter. For example, there is a “good clean fun” element to the American keg stand, even though it’s potentially very hard on the body. Keg stands are nothing new, and many people who do them are doing them with a sense of nostalgic irony. It’s like dressing up on Halloween to look like something silly, but really you still want to look cool. Keg stands are a familiar form of social appropriation but they are also REALLY physically challenging. I like that tension: the serious/not serious, the important/not important – the cliché that has something real at stake, despite its designation as a cliché.
Jon Feinstein: To what degree are these images staged, and how important is that to what you're looking to communicate?
Jill Frank: I feel like the word staged implies some knowledge of the outcome before the image is taken, and I don’t take that approach. When I think of ‘staged’, I think of a refinement process that distances us from the tensions of real lived experience. So, I am not interested in that form of staging at all, it doesn’t serve this subject matter. I do, however, control certain elements of the picture while leaving a lot of space for happenstances and accidents. I photograph in context: in different pre-existing environments, rather than controlled studio settings. Some of the photographs are taken in a style that could be described as “straight documentary”, but the majority of the work documents performances that are done with an awareness of a camera – my camera or the subjects’ camera. I don’t think it matters if the components in a photograph are mostly discovered or partially fabricated, as long as the picture still has a productive ambiguity and earnestness.
Jon Feinstein: One image that particularly stands out for me is your photograph of kids doing a keg stand in the woods. The sun is setting and the environment feels a little off, but then there's an young woman staring back at the viewer/ aware of being photographed, but not quite a "portrait." What's going on here?
Jill Frank: In many of the portraits and scenes, my presence is implied but not overt. In this picture, there are kids doing keg stands in the backyard of a house at sunset, and one girl is just staring at me. I am there, in the same space as these kids, not participating, observing them, recording them, asking them for permission and direction (which inherently changes their actions and the performance itself): and her direct eye contact hints at this mediation, breaks any illusion that this is a private, undisturbed natural moment. My presence, impact and complicity is an important aspect of this work.
Jon Feinstein: I ask almost every photographer this question -- just out of curiosity -- if there were a mixtape to this work, who would be on it, and what would it be called?
Jill Frank: The mix tape is called "Get your tractors off our lawn!" It's a collection of song suggestions from the people I photographed / people who helped out.
The Promise—When in Rome (Morgan)
St. Etienne—Only Love can break your heart (from Kai)
Trampled under foot – Led Zeppelin (from Allesandra)
Last Caress – Misfits (from Ty)
On a Plain – Nirvana (from John)
Look Out—Alex G (Reagan)
Forever Young—Alphaville (from Ben)
Fuck the Pain away- Teaches of the peaches – peaches (from Mica)
Child’s Play – Drake (From Alexis)
Fetty Wap – Trap Queen (from Maggie)
Eye of the Tiger – XX (from Tyler)
Rio – Duran Duran (from Jill)
Bio: Jill Frank currently lives in Atlanta and teaches photography at Georgia State University. She studied photography at Bard College and received an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has shown nationally and internationally, selected solo exhibitions include the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Her work has been featured in Art Papers and reviews of her work have appeared in Art Forum, The Paris Review and Bad at Sports.