Contemporary Photographer Series - Jill Frank

© Jill Frank

Jill Frank is a visual artist who works primarily in photography. She holds a BA in photography from Bard College and an MFA in Studio Art from The School of Art Institute of Chicago. Her works have been shown nationally and internationally including a recent solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Georgia. She currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches photography at Georgia State University. She was recently interviewed by Hannah Taylor for our Contemporary Photographer Series (CPS).

In your current work, the population you are photographing is exclusively college-aged, whereas your previous work featured a much broader age range. What drew you to begin focusing on young adults and what challenges have you experienced photographing them? 

At the time I started this body of work, I was interested in subject matter that was widely considered unimportant, trivial, or "in bad taste" because of the way that it is typically represented in photographs. After some consideration, I settled on youth party culture. I was, of course, influenced by Instagram, and thinking about what types of subjects were photographed constantly but by proportion, were rarely taken seriously: pictures of drinking and partying stood out as a solid example of this. Most people look at photographs all day long, and take for granted their power of persuasion and their important role in shaping ideology. I wanted to make photographs that demanded a certain quality of attention, for a subject matter that is often dismissed. 

I certainly experienced some challenges while working with this demographic. I mean, I am about 15 years old than most of the people I photographed and I am trespassing in their social environment. I had a complex role; I was an observer in some ways and a facilitator in other ways. These things are obviously happening regardless of my desire to depict them, but by photographing them I am, of course, in some way encouraging the behavior. 

We always have these ideas about what we might capture or what our work might be about but until we make the pictures we have no idea. My interest at the beginning was centered around a question - is it possible to represent the experiences of American youth, the rites of passage and rituals that are overly familiar, generic and cliché, in a way that complicates our perception of them and gives them a serious audience? While this idea remained constant throughout the project, I also felt that the resulting pictures were more nebulously about vulnerability and identity than they were representations of activities. I also felt that in order to properly address my question, I would need to do this for many more years, because these social performances require a lot of acute observation - I barely broke the surface.

© Jill Frank

You've been photographing in fast-paced environments like Spring Break and parties using large format film, which can be a very slow process. How does that play a factor in how you choose to make your photographs?

Yes the large format camera shapes the way things look and the interactions I have. I enjoy the slow pace of the camera - I am not a very fast-moving photographer. I sense that the size of the camera and the tripod put people at ease, they know I won't be sneaking up on them, it's all very transparent. We all love photography for different reasons - one thing I love is the extreme accuracy and control of the large format camera. I am bringing a lot of rigid, formal consideration to a subject that doesn't often elicit that type of attention. I am also drawn to the space between staged and candid moments, and the amount of accidental information that makes its way into a photograph. View cameras are often very still and the subject has to be quite attentive to the photographer's instructions so a lot of the image is planned out; yet, there are always surprises and unplanned details. In portraits, there are tiny moments where a person breaks from their performance for the camera and reveals a genuine expression. As Lee Friedlander said, "it's a generous medium, photography."

© Jill Frank

Your project Plates is formally different from your color portraiture, but seems to be conceptually related to some of your other projects. What motivated you to make work this way?

I made this work when I first became interested in these sorts of unsanctioned, recreational activities. I went to a blunt-rolling contest hosted by a very successful artist/skater guy in Atlanta. The contest stipulates that the winner is the person with the least amount of wasted supply, each person receives the same quantity and materials, all of which are provided on a paper plate where the contestant writes their name. After the contest, I carefully collected the plates and the remaining materials, turned them into paper negatives and contact printed them. In this case, the contest is won or lost based on the status of the plate, so it felt appropriate that they be the primary material used to make the work. I didn't feel the need to make conventional pictures, this technique just felt right.

© Jill Frank

In a press release from your recent MOCA GA exhibition you talk about this ritualistic culture often being dismissed because of its familiarity. What did you learn about the interactions in these settings that you may not have known otherwise? 

I was surprised that certain elements of social activity remained the same as they were in the late 90's, while other elements were quite different. The standout difference is the presence of social media, all of these activities and events are heavily documented and shared in real time. If you shotgun a beer, you are likely being videotaped and timed. Many people I encountered were in the midst of taking selfies and performing specifically for social media documentation, with awareness of both irony and humor. I think this raises some of the stakes involved in the performances, due to the wide-reaching audience and last documentation. In the past, a perfectly executed extreme party performance could result in a heroic sage, embellished and revered for generations - it would never be fact checked or re-watched and challenged. 

© Jill Frank

After several years of photographing youth culture, do you know where you want to go from here?

I have been dabbling with new ideas, but I feel my intentions shifting after this recent election. The world is always changing, but the next four years will be intense!

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