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Faces of the right

January 17, 2009 |  4:21 pm


When Jona Frank read a 2005 New Yorker story about the new, highly conservative and wildly ambitious Patrick Henry College, she was compelled to go and see its students for herself. The result is more than two years of photographs gathered in "Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League" from Chronicle Books, and an exhibit, now open, at the Sherry Frumkin Gallery.

Frank -- whom I went to college with years ago, at the (by comparison) moderately conservative and not particularly ambitious University of Southern California -- has focused her photography on teenagers, and also on sameness (a recent project was on twins). As the book begins, boy after teenaged boy appears in shirt and tie, girls in politely mature outfits; almost all appear ready to be decisionmakers in Washington -- roles PHC grooms them for -- bending the culture to their way of thinking.

And their way of thinking is clear: "The Mission of Patrick Henry College," its website declares, "is to prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding." God and the Bible appear frequently in the pages of schoolwork that Frank shoots against plain white background, much of it from the homeschooling PHC students undertake instead of attending public high school. She returns to the homes of a few students, photographing their often-large families (one has 10 children, ages 21 to 2) standing together or one by one, framed against the same background. Although there are a few shots of people in action, generally these are portraits, people looking directly at the camera.


In all the displays of sameness, little differences emerge. Details take on greater meaning, making the viewer pay closer attention to a smirk, a wrinkled brow, a slightly upturned chin. Noticing difference becomes a key to understanding.

PHC has a strong internship program, as the book's final section,"Interns," demonstrates. Students are photographed in their workplaces: at Fox News, in Congress, Slate magazine, at the White House National Economic Council. They are taking their place in formulating the culture. 

But if you're thinking that this is a liberal's terrified look into the conservative abyss, think again. Frank could have focused on dogmatists, perhaps, but she does not. A few interviews with students, especially toward the end of book, show a genuine questioning, examinations of the school's failings that are measured and fair. Although the students wouldn't think to question their conservative values, the book shows they can turn their critical thinking skills on the college that shaped them.

The show, which is open now, holds its reception next Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Sherry Frumkin Gallery in Santa Monica.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Jona Frank