Jona Frank’s Cherry Hill is an interesting book. It’s mostly a memoir, and one Frank illustrates with staged photographs, employing actors to portray her younger self and family members. If Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara was a book I wished I could make, Cherry Hill goes one step further…
Before I get too far into it, apologies to Frank and anyone who clicks through to read this. I’m ill and busy with too much work, and so this is likely to be a slapshot bit of nonsense.
Frank is the youngest of four children and the only girl. Her father, Robert Frank (no, not that one) is mentioned but absent from the photographs, and her mother, Rose Frank, played by Laura Dern, is the main antagonist, though that’s probably the wrong word. Her brothers are there too, but the only one we really meet is Mark, the middle brother, the confidant and conspirator of her youth, who has a breakdown and ends up sort of drifting.
The 360-odd pages cover the first 25 years or so of Frank’s life. She discovers photography in High School; her mom tries to dissuade her from it; she studies English, but spends all her time in advanced photography electives. She bounces a bit after college, ends up back at home, and the book ends with her on the road back to California, where she lives today and works as a professional photographer with a handful of books to her credit.
I saw one in a nearby Half Price Books last week and may just go back and pick it up, compare her work from “Ivy League” Christian colleges with the Cherry Hill work. Near the end of the book, there are a few black & white photographs that Frank apparently made on road trips just after college, when the photo bug really took hold, and, really, that’s not at all what the book is about.
Really, it’s about Frank growing up and finding herself, coming to terms with herself and her family. It’s something we all do. Those of you with siblings may recognize different things in it than I do; as an only child, I was stuck more than once by a sense of absence and loss at not having any siblings to tell stories about, to remember as conspirators and confidants. Alas.
Frank’s mom resembles my mom, in some ways. They both struggled to communicate in ways we could appreciate; we also failed to communicate in ways they could appreciate. Frank’s mom had her quirks and moments and deep failings, but so do all of our parents, so do we all. And I’m sure the mother/daughter trauma is different from the mother/son variant, but it’s all so common and usual—at least in my mind—that none of it produced a gasp or shock or anything. And that’s not what Frank set out to do.
Really, its a quite simple memoir, with great pictures of a familiar actor and some kids that sorta resemble what the adult Frank—pictured at the end of the book—might have looked like as a child. Much of it is glossy and glamorized in ways that seem a bit artificial, like the “Brady Bunch” or something, but it works and I’m again jealous. Would that I could write as well as Frank; would that I could conceive of and execute photographs of this quality. Cherry Hill is a great model to strive towards, I think.
Overall, I rate Cherry Hill 4.5 stars.
Glancing at the book just now, sitting next to me on the desk, I notice that it has a subtitle. Cherry Hill: a Childhood Reimagined by Jona Frank. So… reimagined in the sense of rephotographing in this glossy way, with Laura Dern in the role of Mom? Or… reimagined in the sense of “fictionalized?” I’m not overly troubled by it, but it does slightly color the memoir aspect. I’m reminded of how moved and seen I felt after reading James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and how I don’t really care that it’s fiction, even though I see that I’m not at all. I guess that’s what we all feel, more or less. And I’m sure I’m not making any sense. Chalk it up to illness or something, and never mind…
Cherry Hill remains available from the publisher and at various retailers. If you have any interest in mixing prose and image, it’s a must. Frank’s website is a single page affair. Photography at the top; video at the bottom. Looking again, I guess it’s two pages: at the top, there are links, one to a simple contact page, the other an anchor link to motion work at the bottom of the main page. The images are small-ish on my 16″ MacBook Pro and there’s no pop up or gallery view or anything. And there’s no biographical data or links to anything else.
To do her a favor, here are a few links to other good press about Cherry Hill: The New York Times; ItsNiceThat; The Philadelphia Enquirer. Frank was interviewed about the project on LitHub. I’m sure there are others. Her work may not be my cup of tea, really, but I like what she’s doing, and Cherry Hill is great.