In a long and wonderfully intelligent introduction, Joshua Chuang calls the work of Judith Joy Ross “a metaphorical autobiography.” It is a must-read to better understand the power of this astonishing body of work. Born on August 12, 1946, in Hazleton, a mining town in Pennsylvania, Ross has created a body of work that, at first, seems to be marked with recurring sadness. Although that’s not the case, it is true that one does need to make an effort to overcome an initial negative reaction, to give oneself time to reflect: photography is a pensive art form.
The book published by Atelier EXB complements the exhibition at the BAL, in Paris, showing how far this American woman, still little known in France, has forged her path, living her life twofold thanks to photography, with a dizzying discretion. It is probably this sense of reserve that is most touching, especially that in her confrontation with the most popular medium of the twentieth century, Ross found her own language, even while being open about her sources of inspiration: Julia Margaret Cameron, Timothy O’Sullivan, Lewis W. Hine, August Sander, and Eugène Atget. Photography enthusiasts will immediately recognize their idols; as will fans of the 2.0 generation, since the exhibition at the BAL, as well as the book, by their artistic pedagogy, shed light on Judith Joy Ross’s roots.
Her childhood, her parents, and her hometown: three lifelines the American photographer drew on in her early years as she set out to discover, then lock away, her past. We start with Eurana Park in Weatherly, PA, where she returned after the death of her father (in the spring of 1981), “a place that has remained intact.” Nothing seems to have changed since the time she used to go there with her father and her brothers, Edward and Robert, when the family was staying in their Rockport home built by Ross’s maternal grandfather. The presence of water (with a nearby lake) and the teenagers, their awkward bodies, their confidence, their interactions. She photographed them with their permission, creating, as Joshua Chuang puts it, “a seminal series.” Her trick? An 8×10 camera (Deardorff to connoisseurs), “the size of a small fruit crate with the bellows extended. … A mahogany and metal body of old-fashioned elegance.” The photographer thus never snatches a portrait: she is seen by the teenagers, and vice versa. There is a pact of trust between them. This photographic practice would become her trademark — even her manifesto when it comes to reporting on causes close to her heart.
From the absurdity of the Vietnam War to senators and House representatives; from working women and men to kids in Hazleton public schools; from the aftermath of 9/11 to the everyday scenes in her father’s hometown of Freeland: whatever she photographs, Ross takes great pains to weave her personal odyssey into the present of American society. Her series bear witness to her country’s failings, sufferings, and questionings, always through those who live there. As a result, Americans are no longer a sort of indefinite crowd, but a human geography of individual sensibilities and shared diversity. This openness onto others is one of the keys to Ross’s work, allowing us to gauge its intensity and integrity.
The last proof of this is a series she made in Paris, starting in 2003. At the BAL, the stunning prints from “Parisian Portraits” elicit deep emotions, as if one were given direct access to those Ross photographed: at Porte de Clignancourt, Place de la Concorde, or Quai de Montebello. The names and faces of African immigrants evoke other worlds. When she photographed members of Congress, she explained her approach, giving an insight into her entire oeuvre: “If you notice the beauty of a person, you will immediately bond with them. And if you bond with them, you will feel concerned, you will become responsible. So, yes, it is very easy to view others from a detached perspective. What I’m asking for is that we focus our attention on all the reasons that make others precious to us. All the reasons that make them unique.”
Judith Joy Ross, Photographs 1978–2015, ed. Joshua Chuang. Texts by Svetlana Alpers, Addison Bross, Adam Ryan. Fundación MAPFRE, Atelier EXB & LE BAL, €45, 312 pp.
Exhibition at Le BAL, Paris, until September 18, 2022.
To learn more about Judith Joy Ross, visit the website of the Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne, Germany and the SFMoMA website, for her series “Protest the War” (available in book form from Steidl/Pace/MacGill).