Book Review: 'The Modern Kids' by Jona Frank
Toughen up. That’s what it takes to become a man, right? Raise your fists, furrow your brow, and assume a steely gaze. Jona Frank’s The Modern Kids (Kehrer) portrays this character of masculinity in the young men and boys who sweat and bleed in the amateur boxing rings around the United Kingdom.
Since 2010, Frank has documented an amateur boxing club within a working class town outside of Liverpool, England. “I like how inviting and open the spaces are,” she says. “I also liked the history – here was a place where age and youth and dads and lads all coincide and work together.” An essay by Bruce Weber accompanies the book. You can see the undeniable influence that Weber, a master of portraiture himself, has had on Frank.
Aesthetically, the book is outstanding. The images depict a display of vibrant primary colors: bright reds, yellows, and blues strike the eye. The portraits are beautifully executed – technically exceptional and emotionally compelling. Behind the hard masks of each young man, Frank has captured a character, the developing identity of a person. Through her portraiture, Frank achieves an intimacy that is seemingly inaccessible from each of her subjects.
The Joyce Carol Oates quotes that appear at the beginning and end of The Modern Kids, from Oates’ book On Boxing, act like brackets containing the series of portraits which encourage a romanticized view of boxing. It is certainly a feat to accomplish what these young men have, but we must consider the way this lifestyle preserves a handful of issues.
Frank captures, subtly and powerfully, the sad facets of this boxing gym culture. It perpetuates the complex shaping of gender stereotypes. One which these boys fit themselves into as they grow into adulthood. The eyes of a young boy have an all too harsh gaze, sweat drips down his red face, and a vein pops near his temple. His lips are pursed, and his muscles are tensed.
The middle of the book presents portraits of couples, the older boxers with their girls; a break from the subjects that are usually clad in gloves and elastic-band shorts. The pairs could be siblings, though that’s doubtful. The addition of women partners add to the cliché character of the heterosexual male: a fine young man, strong and able, with his pretty girl. The exaggerated contrast between masculine and feminine is aptly captured in this culture.
‘The Modern Kids’ releases in April 2016. Along with this photobook, Jona Frank created the short film ‘Baby Faced Assassin’ in 2014 about boxer Paul Butler, the British Super Flyweight, as he prepares for his first title fight.
Text by Isabelle Hay