‘My Motifs Feel Special – Most of the Time’: Judith Joy Ross in Her Sensual Portraits | Photography

Back in 1967, when Judith Joy Ross was a shy and awkward 20-year-old, still finding out to be a photographer, she used to take what she calls “sneak peeks” of people on the street. “I had different little techniques,” she says. “Often I pretended I was figuring out how to use the camera while actually recording.”

How, I ask, did she conquer her self-awareness and approach the countless passing strangers whose portraits now constitute one of the most unique and influential works in American photography? “You choose a topic and you make yourself do it,” she replies. “It was hard for me. It was like how much torture can I endure? But what I would see in a person, if only for a moment, was so wonderful, it was worth it.”

A conversation with Ross, who is now in his mid-70s, is an unpredictable trip. She is smart, howling funny and straightforward – about herself and others. Oh, and she swears. A lot.

Untitled, Eurana Park, Weatherly, Pennsylvania, 1982.
Somehow Extraordinary… Untitled, Eurana Park, Weatherly, Pennsylvania, 1982. Photo: © Judith Joy Ross, courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

“As a photographer, you should not be attached to your subjects,” she says at one point, “but I am so fuckme attached. I’m even attached to things that other people consider waste. Basically, I just love things I have known for a long time. ”

In a new retrospective book, Judith Joy Ross: Photographs 1978-2015, the things she loves – trees, rooms, windows, all rendered eerily beautiful – are outnumbered by the ordinary people she has met and somehow done extraordinarily in her deftly composed, quiet and calm. revealing portraits. Alongside a retrospective exhibition of her work, which has just opened at Le Bal in Paris, the book makes clear what many of her fellow photographers have been saying for years: that Judith Joy Ross may well be America’s greatest living portrait artist.

American documentary photographer Gregory Halpern recently called her “the greatest portrait photographer to ever work in the media.” Alys Tomlinson, a renowned young British photographer who recognizes her as an influence, says: “I do not understand why she is no longer famous. Maybe it’s because she’s attracted to people you can pass on the street and not put “She raises them with her camera. Her portraits are not neutral. There is an empathy on her side. A deep connection. She makes you take a closer look at her subjects and think about them.” Interestingly, Ross tells me that she rarely photographs rich people and “only sometimes” poor people. “I’m looking for people like me,” she says.

For most of his working life, Ross has used an eight by 10-inch plate camera mounted on a tripod, which, she says, “is so big and damn beautiful that it disarms people. It’s like a circus has come to town! They feel special – most of the time at least. ” Her portraits often radiate an almost luminous silence, their presence deepened by the blurred shadows and indistinct shapes in the background.It’s as if everything irrelevant falls away the moment she presses the shutter button.When I suggest she has a signature style, which many strive for but few achieve, she says only half jokingly: “All my pictures certainly look alike, which is something creepy to me. However, I was not looking for a style. The world can not be defined. “

Ross grew up in Hazleton, a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania where her father owned a five-and-dime store and her mother taught piano. For an early series, Eurana Park (1982), she visited an outdoor swimming pool in nearby Weatherly, which she visited as a child. The portraits brilliantly evoke the inertia of the long summers as well as the awkwardness of youth. In one, a young boy with a pudding bowl clipping stands stiffly holding a garden rake. In another, a teenage girl stares into the lens, her gaze so resolute that it takes a while to notice that her hair is wet and flat out after a swim, and her forehead is still stained with tiny drops of water. The details speak volumes about Ross’ concentrated gaze. “For me, taking a photograph is tactile,” she says. “It’s sensual. I find the beauty that lies in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life. However, I do not transform that generality. I record it.”

The lethargy of long summers… Untitled, Eurana Park, Weatherly, Pennsylvania, 1982.
The lethargy of long summers… Untitled, Eurana Park, Weatherly, Pennsylvania, 1982. Photo: © Judith Joy Ross, courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

The Eurana Park portraits were made in the shadow of her father’s death. “It was a very difficult time,” she says. “As a kid, we went there on special days, and it was like Brigadoon to me. Playful kids, frogs, huge raspberry trees. When I went back there to take pictures, I mourned for my dad. He’s somehow at work. ”

One senses that her teenage years were not entirely happy. She highlights one image: a group portrait in which three girls look at a young couple sitting on a nearby car. “The girl who chewed her nails, it was me,” she tells me, actually. “The social loser-type person who comes to observe does not have to be.” When I ask if she was running as a teenager, she says, “I’m still running. Back then, I would have said I was fucked. For most people, sexuality is a cool thing, but not for me. “

Her diversity had intensified in the late 1960s when she took a photography course at the Institute of Design in Chicago. Her teacher was photographer Aaron Siskind, an iconoclastic who elevated formal experiments and abstraction rather than intuitive skills and craftsmanship. “I was a pretty lost person in high school,” she says, “it stunk! Siskind would sit 30 feet away and look at print and say things like, ‘This one has a quality.’ I did not know what the hell that meant. ” She spent most afternoons in the local cinema in the center. “I was not a healthy person,” she says. “I graduated because they could not have traded with me for another year.”

In 1983, still mourning her father, she traveled to Washington and began working on what would become her most famous series, Portraits at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Nearly 40 years later, its quiet observational resonance remains subdued, each portrait an acute glimpse of private contemplation. The wall itself, inscribed with the names of American dead, is an almost subliminal presence throughout. Instead, it is the faces that convey the weight of each individual’s private thoughts and, by extension, the carefree grief of a divided nation.

An acute glimpse of grief… Untitled, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC, 1984.
An acute glimpse of grief… Untitled, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC, 1984. Photo: © Judith Joy Ross, courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne © Kunstnerkredit

“It was all motivation,” she says now, of the impulse that led her there. “The war was on TV every morning when you ate your Cheerios and milk. It was annoying and it still is. I was young and I thought I would end the war with my photographs, just as inappropriate as it was to go to the Vietnam Memorial with a seeker and ask people if I could photograph them.I also had this crazy idea to make a requiem fair through my pictures.I mean what the hell was that about? I did not know anything about music. ”

When the influential American curator John Szarkowski saw the portraits, he chose 16 of them to include in a show called New Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1985. After being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, Ross had already joined time with what, in hindsight, is her least characteristic work, Portraits of the United States Congress. It was anything but ordinary people, and she later said that while photographing them in their work environment at the Capitol, she felt “trapped again and again.” The results are surprisingly intimate, the expressions ranging from stoic to vulnerable. “I love the way reality looks in the most common terms,” ​​she says, “even in Congress there are silly things.”

The new book is an elevated catalog of generality, whether the eerie mysterious interior of her family’s cottage in Rockport or the troubled faces of people staring from a vantage point on Eagle Rock, New Jersey toward the changing Manhattan skyline a week after 9 / 11.

Her house near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has a darkroom in the basement where she carefully develops her prints, which are always roughly the same size as her 8 “x10” negatives. She avoids the sharpness of black and white by tinting her prints in gold chloride, a careful process that, depending on the subject, gives them a gray or brown appearance.

“I started doing it with the pictures from Eurana Park,” she explains. “Some, like the three little girls with ice lollies, are printed brown because they are full of joy. Others, mostly of the older children, are printed gray because I could sense that they already had the basic existential problems that adults have. That series has an awareness that life gets tough. Period. To me, greyness is our mortality. I would not have said that at the time, but I said it to myself yesterday when I thought of the pictures. ”

Ross is currently suffering from an eye problem following a pre-pandemic operation that has left her with double vision. “I can photograph,” she says, “but it’s hard to go for a walk.”

One senses that photography gave her a way of being in the world. “I’m just interested in people, but I do not want to get too close to them,” she says. “I hold them at arm’s length with the camera. It’s like a magic charm. It is such an intense pleasure to photograph strangers because at that moment you can see them in such an intimate way. It’s a little crazy, but I love some of those people, even though I’ve never seen them again.

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