_interview with judith joy ross

© Judith Joy Ross, 7th Grade Spelling Lesson, H.F. Grebey Jr. High School, Hazleton, Pennsylvania, 1992


A_ I would like to begin the interview by quoting Robert Adams. In his book Why People Photograph? he talks about your work and underlines some important aspects of your photographic practice. We are curious to hear your thoughts on it. Since the publication of this article more than ten years ago, many things are likely to have changed.

Adams writes about you:

“Judith Joy Ross has, as an artist, no formula. She starts over again each time – the riskiest way to do it,” and he continues, “she has a style, of course, but it is austere. […] Ross’s work is beautiful in its transparency.”1 Robert Adams, Why People Photograph? (New York: Aperture, 1994), 103.

Adams’ ability to depict your photographic practice in a few sentences, less than two pages in his book, inspired me to think differently about certain aspects of your work. He uses phrases such as “no formula,” “austere,” “transparency,” which I think succeed in giving a first overall impression of you as a photographer, but fail to reveal other, deeper aspects of your work. Do you recognize yourself in Adams’ words?

JJR When Robert Adams speaks of transparency, it means one values what is in front of them as much as possible. Isn’t that what Robert Adams does and what August Sander did? It is what folks who believe in straight photography do. The world outside oneself is bigger than one’s idea of it. One tries to align oneself with that bigger world in making a picture.

When I shoot, I am photographing because what is in front of me is really happening, and I want people to know about it. I fall in love with the beauty of an expression or the turn of a collar, a poignant gesture, the light. I don’t know these people, except suddenly with a camera we have an intense relationship… the picture is proof. It’s about paying attention. I have a large beautiful wooden camera. I am a quick talker, I can convince people in a few seconds because I am sincerely interested in them, but I am more interested in capturing what I see in them. It’s not that I want to be their friend, it’s that I see their life and it’s amazing, and I want to put it in an image. It’s a short but deep connection. Then I go back to being alone but have one more lightning bug in a bottle. One more piece of evidence as to who we are.
The 8×10 camera is vital. I use it like a charm, like an attractant. I would not enjoy pointing a camera to a stranger. I would feel like I am doing something to them. With a view camera, we are doing something together. Definitely together. I am fumbling around under a cloth over the camera and myself, and the person is arranging themselves. We work together.

When I go out with a camera, I have an antenna to notice and be drawn into someone’s life. Then, my entire purpose is to notice what’s going on with other people and to record it. Most of my work is in series, and each series has behind it a goal of dealing with an issue, and in each context I explore who people are.

A_ The austerity mentioned above is an incidental effect of using a view camera, but a photographer can also surprise the viewer by rethinking traditional aesthetic and using this aesthetic in a new way. When did you first use this format? Have you always worked with a view camera? How much does a specific medium or technique determine the outcome?

JJR My first camera was a 2/14 twin lens reflex. I wish my eyes were good enough to use it today. I love contact prints by 19th-century photographers like Atget or Fenton, and the seamless flowing lack of grain for my pictures. I have too much tremor to use anything handheld. I’d be happy to, but I can’t. I have been photographing animals in relation to people, not a good territory for an 8×10 camera. I have found funny things to make it work, the view camera always makes me approach the subject from the backdoor… I mean, I cannot make easy pictures with it. But who would want that? I started using the 5×7 format in 1976, and the 8×10 in 1981.

A_ Could you comment on this passage with us?

“The photographs are a record of compassion, of shared suffering. We observe it in the sympathetic identification that brings Ross to her work, and in the children’s tentative smiles, their brave impulse to trust her, to sense themselves in her. It is a bond that, by its nature, even includes us. We take hope from it.”2Robert Adams, Why People Photograph?, 104.

I don’t know if it is right to talk about “compassion” or “shared suffering.” Are we compassionate towards the children’s condition because we see in their expressions some vulnerability that we share? Do we feel these strong emotions coming from your subjects because we identify with them? Or is this feeling due to something else?

JJR By paying attention, I see things in people that are there but you have to allow yourself to see them. I do not see my friends or family like I see total strangers. I am just enjoying my friends or not, but I am not interested in looking at them to make a picture. I would feel very odd photographing a friend. When I see something in a stranger it is not just an expression but an idea about that person and an understanding. Seeing, on the level I am trying to describe, is for me like making pictures or poems. It’s very thrilling or problematic. You just have to try and see what happens.

A_Once you said3Ed. In reference to the interview by Emma Kennedy. “From the Corridors of Power, A Portrait of Reagan-Era Politics.” Aperture, 1 Nov. 2016, aperture.org/blog/judith-joy-ross-congress-portraits/. Accessed 28 Mar. 2019. that in your photographs you want to address stances that you both agree and disagree with. I don’t know if this is a fitting example, but I immediately thought of the Protesting the War and the Portraits of the United States Congress, 1986-87 series. In the latter you have photographed both Republicans and Democrats, approaching both parties with the same method, but it seems to me that it’s impossible to maintain absolute impartiality.

JJR I made Portraits of the U.S. Congress to confront my prejudices. I had August Sander completely under my belt as a guide, which to me meant “put the person in the middle and be as straightforward as possible.” I used Sander’s worship to help me construct my first good body of work, Eurana Park, Weatherly, Pennsylvania. When John Szarkowski, chief curator of photography at MoMA, saw this work back in the day when anyone could take their work for review at the Museum of Modern Art, he asked me if I was familiar with the work of August Sander. I tried to deny the influence, but he saw that I was holding back and said: “It’s okay Judith, it’s called tradition to be influenced by another’s work.”

I used Southworth and Hawes, a great daguerreotypist team, as a model for making Portraits of the U.S. Congress. Turns out Southworth and Hawes had a far too noble vision of mankind and I never saw anything close to their vision, but it was always a help to think of their work. I love the ordinary, the goofy things that can be part of a person and a picture. It was a contradiction doomed to failure, that I hoped I could find those I disliked politically to be proven untrustworthy at least, but how could that be when I was also wanting to find the truth. So that conceit fell by the wayside. The biggest visual descriptive difference between the two parties, Republican and Democrat, is that in general Republicans had better suits and were more aware of their appearance. Members of Congress were more ordinary folks, whereas the sense of power in the Senate was overwhelming on both sides. Also, most Senators were very tall men.
Only once, when I was photographing, I walked away from one appointment moments before I was to shoot, as I found myself hating this individual’s beliefs and actions enough to not want to find him to be a human being. I am still content with that decision. Congressional portraits show us to be human beings, which is both scary and funny in itself and in the pictures. I could not make these pictures today.

With Protest the War, for the first time I was making a personal political statement against the war. I was not interested in the individuals I was photographing and their lives, but only in their position on the war. I asked them if they were against the war, handed them a model release to sign and made intense portraits specifically as propaganda for our mutual point of view that wars were terrible and should cease. We didn’t use words except for “hold still, don’t move” and we, as strangers, worked together. They gave me what they felt, and it was very intense. Sometimes I broke down and embraced the other person, as we knew we had made something true to our point of view.

A_ I suppose that politicians have a clear picture of themselves. They are used to posing and constructing their image to serve their political campaigns and goals. What was your experience photographing them? Did you manage to deconstruct their own photographic image?

JJR Oh you know, they are who they are. I do not make commercial images or images to please other people, so they did not have a chance really. I was interested in what I saw. I was there to please myself, to see clearly who was in front of me. After the hours and hours of work to get a 15-minute appointment with a famed stranger, it was my time, my point of view that mattered. It must be a bit like hunting, hours in the forest stalking and then it’s a confrontation, but in this case we both walk away and I get a picture. I mean, you have purpose in making a picture and then you make it. You cannot know in advance what the picture will be, hence mystery comes in. Speaking of mystery, I always used Atget’s books that Szarkowski and Hambourg did as guides for me to have the strength to go out on a hard shoot. I would page through them, and seeing the power of Atget would give me the courage to go out and try a new thing. Five or six Sanders are so burnt into my mind, I think they should appear on a Cat Scan of my brain or heart. I need only to speak of those few Sanders because they are so overwhelmingly powerful, it’s all one needs.

A_ In the series Portraits of the Hazleton Public Schools, you returned to the schools of your youth and hometown. The photographs tell us a profoundly personal story, but at the same time they are mirrors that reflect the broader condition of public education in the US. How can these two elements coexist?

JJR Well you just said it, they do. After all I went to those schools 40 years earlier. If you went back to your school, you would have an experience as well. I took the position of a student, as I had been when I was there. I was there to tell their stories. To get people to remember what it was to be a child. So my purpose formed the pictures as always.

A_Regarding the school theme you once said: “I don’t want the picture to explain school in some documentary sense. [I] want it be an emotional journey. I want the viewer to reconnect with what it is to be a kid.” Did you face any difficulty while photographing children? Was it possible to look into their world in an unaffected way?

JJR Well, evidently. I don’t know how old you are, but there is and was for me as well a time when children were not of interest, as I was engaged in a battle to be an adult, whatever that is. Children, by their very nature, are unaffected. Well, children I know are. I photograph basically working class people. People familiar to me.

A_ Do you have a particular daily routine as a photographer?

JJR I wish I did have a daily routine. There is so much work to do other than shooting that consumes a huge part of my time. Right now I am photographing people protesting the various intensely destructive ways Americans and Canadians are exploiting the planet for oil, gas and electricity. We are beginning to win some major battles against Canadian tar sands and some against hydrofracturing for gas. Pennsylvania is doomed, I fear, to be destroyed by this gas fracturing. I’m also photographing people in relation to animals. The last picture in the book Judith Joy Ross. Photographs sums up what I am doing with people and animals, except that all the work is now in color 8×10 film, with large color prints. The printing out paper I used is gone forever and water flows, does it not? I am so angry about how animals and the environment are treated, I am nearly hysterical. I can react by making pictures which reflect none of that terrible feeling, which is crippling, hoping to affect the outcome in a positive way.

As Gabi Conrath-Scholl makes clear, I care about making pictures. How I care about people varies with the project. My feelings are always most empathetic with children and persons persecuted in any way, as they are innocent. Adults, like myself, deserve more critical and complex analysis.

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