Portraits from the
Evangelical Ivy League
by Jona Frank
Chronicle, 128 pp., $35
Between 1990 and 2004, the 105 members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities grew by 71 percent. In comparison, all public four-year campuses grew by about 13 percent. The Christian schools offer an alternative to the academic and social vulgarities of secular campuses and, in a buyers' market for Ph.D.s, have enormously improved the caliber of the education they provide. Given the fear and derision with which the sort of people associated with these schools are usually characterized in the media, Jona Frank's book of photographs is, well, a revelation.
Jona Frank is a West Coast photographer whose previous book, High School, explored the trauma and glory of adolescence. The subjects of Right are students at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, the "Harvard for homeschoolers," whose mission is to prepare "Christian men and women who will lead the nation." The students Frank depicts, several with perfect SAT scores, have ambitions for careers in politics, media, and the arts, which Patrick Henry fosters with its rigorous liberal arts core curriculum. In Frank's color portraits, these young adults are neatly turned out, personable, and determinedly serious.
Frank works in the tradition of the great German portrait photographer August Sander: Most of her subjects are shown against representative backgrounds and acknowledge the photographer by facing the camera. There are some characteristics they have in common: They stand well, not slouching, twisting, or hunched over. With one possible minor exception, they are not fat. Their complexions are subject to the same eruptions as nonbelievers' their age. There are no facial piercings besides earrings on some of the women. No tattoos. Little makeup. The men habitually wear suits. None are grotesque. But as with many revelations, they can be hard to interpret.
"Elisa, 22," a government major, was shot with one of the school's red brick, colonnaded buildings out of focus in the background. Her light tan trench coat contrasts with the bright green lawn behind her. She stands in the belted trench coat with her arms crossed on her chest in a confident yet casual manner and looks straight ahead. Her features are regular--attractive, even--with her face framed by her dark shoulder-length hair. But her tightly drawn smile, with the merest
suggestion of dimples, is enigmatic. It is far more sophisticated than the "say, cheese" smile Americans habitually wear before the camera, but there is something challenging about it, a suggestion reinforced by her knowing eyes.
One wonders what it is Elisa knows, what she is thinking, if she is framing an agenda.
Elisa differs from "Juli, 18," an education major, who wears a perpetual expression of bewildered innocence. Julie Schuttger has a fair complexion and reddish hair parted in the middle and gathered behind. She is one of three students Frank photographed with their families; the homes all appear well ordered and comfortable, if somewhat vanilla. The three families have a total of 24 children, none of whom seems to have the luxury of time to be bored.
"Shant, 20," a public policy major, presents himself to the camera with a look of troubled concern. He stands on Patrick Henry's broad green campus with his hands in his pants pockets, wearing a blue jacket, blue shirt, and a pale yellow tie. He has thick, dark hair, expressive eyebrows and, like several other male students, chin whiskers.
Shant explains in an interview why he protested the firing of a professor by Chancellor Michael Farris.
Farris, a lawyer famed for his defense of homeschooling parents, founded Patrick Henry; he thought the professor's teaching might undermine the students' Christian beliefs, but the firing prompted several other professors to resign in sympathy. Shant is articulate as he explains his relationship with Farris and other faculty, the petition he circulated, his discussions with other students, and his unresolved feelings about the college.
There are pictures in Right of couples on their way to the Liberty Ball, of campus marriage rituals, and of interns working on Capitol Hill, in the White House, for political campaigns, at Slate, and Fox News. Students come to Patrick Henry College because they want to affect the culture, and they are prepared there to do so. Almost all are political and social as well as religious conservatives, and their impact will be felt first on the right.
Consider, then, "Will, 21," a history major, and the subject of one of Frank's most compelling portraits.