cherry hill is a book with a cinematic set of images by photographer Jona Frank about the trials and tribulations of her suffocated childhood in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It features actress Laura Dern as Frank’s mother.
Frank (born in 1966), is an artist photographer living in Los Angeles, California, who grew up under the ever watchful eye of her mother, who wanted to raise her in her image. But young Frank was a dreamer with his own plans.
In first-grade art class, she imagined what might be on her drawing paper but didn’t draw anything, much to her teacher’s disappointment.
Memories of her childhood where Frank felt trapped growing up in New Jersey and expected to conform to her surroundings still lingered in her adult mind, and she eventually decided to document them visually. As a filmmaker and photographer, she decided to combine her two skills in a cinematic photography experience.
Frank first contacted the owner of his former home in Santa Monica, California and got permission to do a shoot. The photographic artist had friends in the film industry who helped her transform the house into a wallpaper-covered childhood suburban dwelling in Cherry Hill.
It was a massive project with set builders, cameramen, film lighting, and multiple actors playing young Frank at different ages. The icing on the cake was when she landed Oscar-winning actress Laura Dern (jurassic park, Marriage story) to play his mother.
Dern looked nothing like his mother, who was neither tall nor blonde. But being the consummate actress that is Dern, it was without difficulty that she was able to deliver the expressions and moods of her repressive mother figure in the imagery that Frank desired. The photographer and the actress had met through their children at school, which led to the closing of the deal.
Flipping through the finished book, Dern said, “It’s like holding a movie in your hands.”
Want to be a photographer
“When I was a senior in high school, I took my first photography class. [with a Pentax K1000 that was supplied]and it was this HUGE moment when I realized that these images that I had cataloged in my head throughout my life could be made tangible,” says Frank PetaPixel. “It gave me a way to show my way of thinking.
“One evening at dinner at 5:30 p.m., I [aged 17] announced that I wanted to be a photographer,” reveals Frank. “It made him [mother, an accountant] nervous. She was very orderly, controlled and planned. It was amorphous, creative, and not part of his plan for me.
Behind the scenes of cherry hill
“At the end of the day, if you want something to look cinematic, you have to do everything you can to make it look like a movie,” Frank says.. “Lentils [anamorphic] played a big part in that, as did the casting of an iconic actor.
“Well, hmmm, the book is about the little things we take with us and remember – a kind of visual dialogue of the observations we make as children.
“The filming was done over a few years. In 2016, I started testing the story and image idea and after writing a few stories, I thought it would be a good idea to test creating some moments.
“But most of the images were made in 2018 after I found an address and a house to work in that looked like my childhood home. I spent April 2018 working in that house, then I made another big part of the photos in August 2018.
“I worked with a small team, but it took costumes, make-up, scenography, artistic direction… In total, the project lasted about five years. But the majority of the shooting [was done in] more like two months – April and August 2018.”
There is a scene of an exploding building created using a miniature set.
“There is no Photoshopping,” the artist tells us. “We blew up the model that is in the first chapter.
“It was shot at 150fps on 35mm motion picture film. If I remember correctly it was an Arriflex 435 camera and then the film was digitized at 4K resolution [and a single frame used]. One take! It was fun!! I have never done pyrotechnics!
“You can see the explosion on my Instagram!”
Frank, who was inspired by Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, August Sander, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand, doesn’t have an absolute favorite photo in the book.
“There are things in this series that I feel such personal satisfaction about because THEY exist, have been realized – these different ideas have come together and really worked,” says the artist photographer. “It was quite a test, an experiment and it just found this beautiful synchronicity.
“I guess the young Jona in the canvas dress against the canvas wallpaper is really standout to me. She’s the younger sister of the girl in the book. The dress is fabric. It’s in book two Once faded, emerging as I write about the discovery of photography.Then it’s at the end that I’m about to leave Cherry Hill.
“In the prologue, I write about the stories in the wallpaper and how I woke up in the morning wondering if the stories changed overnight and how ‘they never did.’ of the book are made to be read, like stories: their placement, their purpose work to move the story forward.
“The intention here is to say that I feel like no one wants me to change. They want me to stay like the wallpaper. Letting this little girl go is hard. I was the last child, the only daughter, with three older brothers.
Shooting with anamorphic lenses
“I wanted to make photos that felt like watching a movie,” says Frank. “Anamorphic lenses create imperfections that we have come to associate with film [movie] see. I appeal to people who are comfortable with this language because they have watched so many films. Digital photography makes everything too clean. By combining digital with an anamorphic lens, I am able to play on the history of cinema and the narration.
Frank, who earned a degree in English and then a master’s degree in film production at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, chose not to press the shutter herself all the time.
“I did ALL the photography, but it was involved – sometimes the actors had dialogue that I wrote,” says the artist. “They were always looking to me for advice and direction. I worked with a director of photography and a lighting team. We all worked closely together. I shot a few of them, but I was often on set or on the monitor directing. So back to the artist photographer!
The camera used for the project was the Sony a7R II with Zeiss Master Anamorphic 50mm and 75mm using available and continuous lights.
When she sat down to create a print layout, Frank found herself in a bind because the wide anamorphic images could not be easily laid out in a regular book format. It was imperative for her to have a book-sized book that people were comfortable reading.
“I didn’t do the anamorphic justice!” It produces a nice WIDE picture, and I loved it because it has all the unobtrusive visual anomalies of widescreen movies, but it made an awkward book size,” adds the photography artist. “It was really important to me that it was a book that you could sit down with and hold in your hands, so sometimes I had to crop those edges more than I wanted to, but I LOVE the format and I’m there. will absolutely return in the future.”
“The first time I did the majority of a series digitally,” Frank explains. “The reason I used a digital camera was so I could shoot non-stop. Previous jobs were 4×5. I didn’t want to miss anything when loading film backs.
You can find more of Frank’s work on his Instagram.
About the Author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera courses in New York at the International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was director and teacher of Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days workshops. You can reach him here.
Picture credits: All photos by Jona Frank