In The Modern Kids, a book out next month in the U.S. from Kehrer Verlag, Jona Frank photographed in amateur boxing gyms outside Liverpool. Posed against plain walls and dressed in the bright, silky uniforms of their clubs, Frank’s subjects are sometimes sweaty or bloody from a recent match, their hands still wrapped in tape. Despite their youth, their young faces tell a story of adult conflict and ambition. On facing pages, Frank pairs baby-faced boys with older teammates and rivals, suggesting the before-and-after effect of growing up boxing. “I feel like I am actually looking at little old men, old souls before their time,” writes Bruce Weber in the book’s introduction, a feeling amplified by the old-fashion, fists-up poses and serious expressions.
The book expands on ideas Frank first explored in projects that focused on American high schools, for which she documented Goth kids, ROTC cadets and members of other groups to examine how young people define themselves as individuals and as loose or formal tribes. For The Modern Kids, Frank followed her boxers out of the gym, picturing them in school uniforms or sweatpants, standing in suburban housing developments or seated with pretty, well-groomed girlfriends. Seeing the same boys in different contexts reveals how their identities shift between worlds.
“There’s something about gyms in America these days that has become too commercial–they’re all cleaned up, bright and fancy,” writes Weber. “Jona found a place with lots of dirt and soul.” Weber—and Frank—seem to argue that the grit these fighters earn in the ring is necessary training for what happens outside of it. Quoting from Joyce Carol Oates’s essay on boxing, The Modern Kids concludes with insight into what the sport teaches—namely, the ability to persevere in the face of pain, physical or in other forms. Writes Oates, “I can entertain the proposition that life is a metaphor for boxing—for one of those bouts that go on and on, round following round, jabs, missed punches, clinches, nothing determined, again the bell and again and you and your opponent so evenly matched it’s impossible not to see that your opponent is you.”