© Judith Joy Ross, Untitled, from Eurana Park, Weatherly, Pennsylvania, 1982

 
 

I would like to begin the interview with a short analysis of Robert Adams' words about your work. I think that the text underlines many important aspects of your work, and I would like to hear your thoughts about it, more than ten years after the first publication of this article, because I think that many things have changed from then.

1. Robert Adams says about you in Why People Photograph?, “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.”
Robert Adams was able to paint your way of working as a photographer in a couple of sentences, less then two pages in his book, and this has opened my eyes. Starting from this point, I would like to ask you something about Adams' statement about you. He mentioned the words “no formula”, “austere”, “transparency”, and I think that these words give us just a first overall impression about you as a photographer, but they don't reveal other deeper aspects of your work. Do you recognize yourself in Adams' words?

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 what August Sander did. Its what folks who believe in straight photography do. The world outside oneself is bigger than ones 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 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. Its 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 really interested more 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 is 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 lightening bug in a bottle. One more piece of evidence as to who we are.
The 8x10 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 themself. We work together.

When I go out with a camera then I have on antenna to notice and be drawn into someone’s life. Then it is my entire purpose to notice what is 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.

 
 

© Judith Joy Ross, Untitled, from Portraits at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington D.C., 1984

© Judith Joy Ross, Untitled, from Portraits at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington D.C., 1984

 
 

2. The austerity, previously mentioned, is an incidental effect of using a view camera, but a photographer can also surprise the viewer 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 determinate the results of a photographic work?

My first camera was a 2/14 twin lens reflex. 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 would be happy to use them. But I can’t. I have been photographing animals in relation to people, not a good territory for an 8x10. I have found funny things to make it work, the view camera always makes me approach the subject from the back door... I mean, I cannot make easy pictures with it. But who would want that. I started using 5x7 in 1976, 8x10 in 1981.

3. Could you comment 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." (i)

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

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.

 
 

© Judith Joy Ross, Joan Snow Newman, Legislative Director to Senator Jake Garn, Republican, Utah, 1987

 
 

© Judith Joy Ross, Congressman Peter Kostmayer, Democrat, Pennsylvania, 1986

 
 

4. Once you have said that you want to treat with your photographs both questions you agree or disagree with. I don't know if it is the right example to use, but I immediately visualize the “Protesting the War” portraits and the “US Congress Members” ones. In the series “US Congress Members” 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 equity.

I made Portraits of the U.S. Congress to confront my prejudices. I had Sander completely under my belt as a guide, which meant to me 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 he said “Its okay Judith, it's called tradition to be influenced by another's work”.

I used Southworth and Hawes, a great Daguerrotypist 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 honest 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 did walk away from one appointment moments before I was to shoot as I found I choose to hate this individuals’ 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,” I was for the first time 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 the wars were terrible and should cease. We didn’t use words except hold still, don’t move and we as strangers worked together and they gave me what they felt and it was very intense. Sometime I broke down and embraced the other person as we knew we had made something true to our point of view.

 
 

© Judith Joy Ross, Layne Cole, Betlehem, Pennsylvania, 2006

© Judith Joy Ross, Jessica Haynes, Pennsylvania, 2006

 

 

5. I suppose that politicians see themselves in a determinate way. They are used to pose and construct their image, and make it useful to their political campaigns and goals. How was it to photograph them? How did you deconstruct their idea of their own photographic image?

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 an appointment for 15 minutes 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 have the courage to go out and try a new thing. 5 or 6 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.

6. 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 they are at the same time mirrors that reflect the broader condition of the public education in the US. How can these two elements cohabit?

Well you just said it, they do. After all I went to those schools 40 years earlier. If you go 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.

 
 

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

 
 

7. 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 with specific difficulties while photographing children? Was it possible to look into their world in an unaffected way?

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.

8. Do you have a particular daily routine as a photographer?

I wish I did have daily routine. There is so much work to do other than shooting, that consumes huge part of time. Right now I am photographing people protesting the various intensely destructive ways Americans and Canadians are exploiting the planet for oil and gas and electricity. We are beginning to win some major battles against Canadian Tar Sands and some against Hydro fracturing 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 (Schirmer/Mosel) sums up what I am doing with people and animals, except that all the work is now in color 8x10 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 and 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.

 
 

© Judith Joy Ross, Children in Neshaminy Creek, Wildlife Camp, The Aark Foundation Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, Chalfont, Pennsylvania, 2011

 
 

All Images: Copyright Judith Joy Ross, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Judith Joy Ross
Judith Joy Ross. Photographs
Schirmer/Mosel Verlag, Germany, 2011
Text by Gabriele Conrath-Scholl and Claudia Schubert
Hardcover, 144 pp., 84 duotone illustrations

 

Interview by Anya Jasbar and Daniel Augschöll