Chronicle Books San Francisco

Jona Frank “RIGHT: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League” — 146 pages, 11 x 9 in. (27.9 x 22.9 cm)

An e-mail arrived from photographer Jona Frank in July of 2007. Jona was working on a new project about home-schooled Christian kids who attend an evangelical college in Virginia. There would be lots of portraits and photos of the students and their projects. Would I be interested in designing the book for her?

This invitation came right on the heels of 100 Days of Monsters, and the last thing I wanted to do was launch into a new book right away, particularly for some guy I didn’t really know. There was also the question of my compatibility with the work. I’ve been looking for the exact wording, which appears to have been lost in some long ago application upgrade. It was something to the effect of, “While I respect everybody’s right to their opinion, I must tell you that I am a big old lefty. Depending on your editorial angle, I might not be the best person for the job.” It was something that got the point across without being offensive. To each their own.

Happily, Jona laughed at my contortions, and quickly outed herself as fellow traveler, so we were good there. I asked her to come sit down with me at my kitchen table, and give me the tour of the material. I was still looking for an easy reason to say “No, thank you.” In the past, I’d said yes to clients without meeting them in person first, or even without talking to them on the phone. Usually it’s not a big deal to skip that step, but just to avoid the one interpersonal ego clash disaster that seems to happen once a decade… it’s well worth the effort.

Jona made the trek to see me. Her work was excellent and the subject matter fascinating. She spent over a year photographing and interviewing the students at Patrick Henry College on the outskirts of Washington D.C. You might remember the school as the subject of Hana Rosin’s book “God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America.” The idea behind the school is to provide a high end university environment for kids that might have a hard time being accepted into top tier universities due to their home schooling background. Specifically, the school is geared toward educating born-again Christian students. At the time of Jona’s visit, the school’s president spoke of seeing PHC students assuming positions of leadership in Hollywood and Washington D.C. to provide a counter culture to the counter culture.

It’s a fundamentalist environment. Students and faculty have to sign a statement that the bible is inerrant, Satan is real, hell is real, and—to paraphrase wildly—non-Christians are gonna be fudged when shit gets real. On one of their field trips they had ice cream at Attorney General John Ashcroft. It is a place far removed from my own experience, and brings together both the highly ambitious and the touchingly innocent.

The process of sequencing the images with Jona was a pleasure, as was designing the book itself. In addition to Jona’s own impressions and interviews, Hana Rosin provided a great foreword, and renowned photo curator Colin Westerbeck a great essay. The team at Chronicle were a model of professionalism. The whole thing was a joy to do. My one gripe—and you knew there had to be one—was that the editorial point of view was getting lost in a general attempt to be even-handed and non-offensive. Reading the jacket blurb and the various PR materials, it’s damn near impossible to tell Jona’s stance. With that in mind, I was happy to see that several Amazon reviews tear the book apart as a liberal hatchet job.

On looking at the design of the book, I think it’s another example of things turning out especially pretty when I take a step back and just lend my help, instead of cramming every surface with little proofs of how clever I think I am. That said, the inside of the dust jacket is bright red, and the book solid gold, emblazoned simply with the book’s title, RIGHT, to suggest a holy document. The title is set in Stymie Extra Bold, then the typeface of the New York Times Magazine. You know, for frisson. There are centerfolds. And needless to say, I distorted several of Jona’s shots in Photoshop to make elements within them parallel to the book edges. Is that impudence? Sacrilege? Arrogance? You bet! But Jona saw that the book is separate from the show, and that it made the book better. I would’ve undone the changes, of course, had Jona asked. But she didn’t. You can see why I love Jona, right?

An interesting thing happened with the cover. Jona and I both felt that this particular shot of that particular student really got across the scary intensity of the fundamentalist mindset, made more frightening still by the fact that the young man is extremely handsome. I always thought of him as a Mirror Universe Kennedy. Well, I showed the book to a friend who does believe in God and is active in her church. She didn’t see anything intense or evil. She simply said, “Just looking at that photo, I trust that man.” And there you have it. Parallel realities.

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