Photographer Jona Frank Casts Actress Laura Dern as Her Mother

Cherry Hill is a book with a cinematic set of images by photographer Jona Frank about the trials and tribulations of her stifled growing up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It features actress Laura Dern as Frank’s mother.

Frank (born 1966), is a photographic artist living in Los Angeles, California, who grew up under the ever-watchful eye of her mother, who wanted to raise her in her own image. But the young Frank was a dreamer with plans of her own.

In first-grade art class, she would imagine what could be on her drawing paper but not draw anything, much to the disappointment of her teacher.

The memories of her childhood where Frank felt trapped growing up in New Jersey and being expected to conform to her surroundings have always lingered in her adult mind, and she finally decided to document them visually. She is both a photographer and a filmmaker, so she combined her talents to create a cinematic experience.

Frank first contacted the owner of her old house in Santa Monica, California, and got permission to do a shoot. Friends in the film business helped Frank transform the home into the suburban, campily-wallpapered house she grew up in Cherry Hill.

It was an enormous project that involved set builders, camera operators and movie lighting. There were also multiple actors who played the roles of Frank, at various ages. The icing on the cake was when she landed Academy Award-winning actress Laura Dern (Jurassic Park, Marriage Story) to play her mother.

Dern looked nothing like her mother, who was not tall or blonde. But being the consummate actress Dern is, it was without difficulty that she could deliver the expressions and moods of her repressive mother figure in the images that Frank desired. It was through the children of Dern that the photographer met the actress. This helped to seal the deal.

Going through the finished book, Dern said, “It’s like holding a film in your hands.”

Wanting 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 I had been cataloging in my head throughout my life could be made tangible,” Frank tells PetaPixel. “It allowed me to express my thoughts.”

“One evening at dinner at 5:30, I [aged 17] announced I wanted to be a photographer,” reveals Frank. It made her [mother, an accountant] anxious. She was very ordered, controlled, and scheduled. It was not her plan .”


The Making of Cherry Hill

“Ultimately, if you want something to look cinematic, you should do as much as you can to make it look like a movie,” says Frank. The role of the lenses [anamorphic] and casting an actor who is iconic was a major part.

“Well, hmmm, the book is about the small things we carry with us and remember — a sort of visual dialogue of observations we make as children.

The shoot took place over several years. In 2016, I started testing the idea of story and picture and, after writing a few stories, thought it would be a good idea to test creating some of the moments.

“But the bulk of the images were made in 2018 after I found an address and a house to work in to look like my childhood home. I spent the month of April 2018 working in that home and then did another large chunk of the photos in August 2018.

“I worked with a small crew, but it required costumes, make-up, set design, art direction… All total, the project took about five years to complete. But the majority of the shoot [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,” says the artist. The model in the first chapter was blown up.

“It was shot 150 frames per second on 35mm motion picture film. If I recall correctly, it was an Arriflex 435 Camera, and then the film was scanned at 4K resolution [and a single frame used]. It was only one shot! It was FUN!! I have never done pyrotechnics!

“You can see the explosion on my Instagram! .”

Frank, who has been inspired by Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, August Sander, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand, does not have an absolute favorite picture in the book.

” “There are certain things about this series which I feel so personal satisfaction about, because THEY existed, and were achieved — these diverse ideas came together to really work,” says the photographer. “It was all a test, an experiment and it just found this beautiful synchronicity.

“I guess one real standout for me is the young Jona in the toile dress against the toile wallpaper. She’s the younger sister of the young girl in the book. The dress is fabric. The dress is in the book twice. Once faded, emerging as I write about the discovery of photography. Then it is in at the end when I am about to leave Cherry Hill.

“In the prologue, I write about the stories in the wallpaper and how I would wake up in the morning wondering if the stories changed overnight and how ‘they never did.’ The photos in the book are meant to be read, like the stories: their placement, their purpose work to further the story.

“Here, the intent is to say that I feel like no one wants me to change. They want me to stay like the wallpaper. It is difficult to let go of this girl. I was the last child, the only girl, with three older brothers.”

Shooting on Anamorphic Lenses

“I wanted photographs to feel like looking at a film,” Frank . Anamorphic lenses can create defects that are associated with the film [movie] appearance. I am appealing to people being comfortable with this language because they have watched so many movies. The digital camera makes it easy to capture everything. By pairing the digital with an anamorphic lens, I am able to play on film history and storytelling.”

Frank, who graduated with a degree in English and then earned an MA in film production at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, chose not to click the shutter herself all the time.

I directed all the photos, but that was not the only thing involved. Sometimes the actors had dialogue which I wrote,” explained the artist. They looked at me constantly for direction and guidance. My team included a director of cinematography and a crew of lighting technicians. We all worked very closely. I did shoot some, but I was often on the set or at the monitor directing. Hence, back to the photographic artist!”

The camera used for the project was the Sony a7R II with Zeiss Master Anamorphic 50mm and 75mm using available as well as continuous lights. Frank was faced with a dilemma when she tried to make a layout for the print. The large anamorphic images were too big to fit in regular books. It was imperative for her to have a book size people were comfortable reading.

“I did not do the anamorphic justice! The beautiful wide image it produces is stunning, and it’s a great book. However, it makes for awkward size. “It was really important to me that this be a book you can sit 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 will absolutely be returning to it in the future.”

“First time I did a majority of a series digitally,” says Frank. Frank says that the reason why I bought a digital camera is so I can shoot continuously. Previous work was 4×5. I did not want to miss things while loading film backs.”

You can find more of Frank’s work on her Instagram.

About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.

Image credits: All photos by Jona Frank