Judith Joy Ross, Photographs 1978–2015

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Aperture (here). Hardcover, 9.4 x 11 inches, 312 pages, with 200 photographs. Includes illustrated essays by Svetlana Alpers, Addison Bross, and Joshua Chuang. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Is there any active photographer more quintessentially American than Judith Joy Ross? A list of her portrait projects reads like a U.S. civics syllabus: congressional representatives (reviewed here), war memorials, jobs, army reservists, public school students, elections, parks, the aftermath of 9/11, refugees, and demonstrations. Browsing these disparate subjects, one gets the sense of a photographer prodding the U.S. zeitgeist from one vantage point and then another, repeatedly feeling for its pulse. She might slot into American history roughly as August Sander does into Germany’s, cataloguing her national identity over decades. But while Sander is a folk hero in his homeland, Ross is barely known outside of the photo community, a fact which in itself says something about America and its popular heroines. Her acclaim isn’t helped by her chosen tools, which are like something out of an E.L. Doctorow novel. She shoots with a 8 x 10 Deardorff, then produces small prints on gelatin silver chloride printing out paper. Final results can vary widely from print to print, closer to jazz age relics than polished files.

Ross contains multitudes, and most are located within a day’s drive of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where she was born (in 1946) and raised. Her father managed the town’s five and dime; her mom was a piano teacher. Ross worked as a housecleaner until she was gradually able to establish a foothold in the art world through teaching and grants. Still active in her late 70s, she’s ascended to photography’s upper ranks, but she still makes her home in Hazleton, population roughly 30,000. It’s an aw-shucks Mayberry life of sorts, a square peg for the round hole of urban curators. Incredibly, over a four decade career, she’s published almost no photobooks on specific topics. There was a 2006 book that showcased her Hazleton schools portraits, followed by two Steidl monographs collecting her war/protest imagery. That’s about it for singular titles.

The remainder of Ross’s seven photobooks have cast wider nets on her archive, each one organizing multiple projects under a generic label, each more expansive than the last, and each engaging the peculiarly American urge toward re-invention. The first was MoMA’s Judith Joy Ross in 1995, followed by The Sprengel Museum’s Judith Joy Ross: Portraits in 1996, and Judith Joy Ross: Photographs Since 1982 by Gabriele Conrath-Scholl and Claudia Schubert in 2011.

None will earn a prize for creative book titling, nor will the most recent, Judith Joy Ross: Photographs 1978-2015, co-published by Fundación MAPFRE and Aperture. If the nameplate is workaday, that’s of minor consequence. Tucked under the hood is a monster retrospective, touching on every Ross series to date, and stuffed with supplementary materials. It was published in conjunction with a touring exhibition which is just as voluminous, currently on view through March of 2023 at Fotomuseum Den Haag (here). Alas, for American fans, that’s about as close as the prints will come, since there are no plans yet to bring it stateside. The book will have to do, and that’s fine. It reproduces her work about as well as any tome could, hewing closely to the original size and tonality of her prints. The result is the definitive book on Ross, at least for now.

Photographs 1978-2015 was herded into shape by former NYPL curator Joshua Chuang, who knows a thing or two about massive oeuvres. With an archive this large—and perhaps responding to an inner librarian impulse—it was probably inevitable that Chuang would lean toward breadth over depth. That’s the case here, but it doesn’t detract. After lengthy illustrated essays by Chuang and Svetlana Alpers, the photos commence on the streets of Philadelphia, circa 1978. They continue chronologically for the next 250 pages, sampling broadly from Ross’s back catalog, with work from 20+ projects. The series are roughly sequenced in order, spiced with occasional singles which jump the timeline. Even when Ross had no project in mind, she worked continuously, and some non-specified photos are filed loosely by date, e.g. [1983-1984] or [1990-1993]. Each photo chapter or period appears in the book for 8 or 10 pages, just enough to get a rough taste. Then it’s on to the next one. Whew. The resulting retrospective is a lot to absorb. After a few times paging through the book, I’m left with a general impression of Ross as the Energizer Bunny. Or perhaps an inexorable lava flow is a better metaphor. She’s been active for almost four decades without much let up. Chuang describes her as “a portraitist by category, not by trade”, driven more by compulsion than market forces. She rarely shoots on assignment. By her own admission, she is “incapable of making a commercially viable portrait.” She marches to her own Energizer drummer.

The underlying through line from the beginning has been people and portraiture. Ross is literally a seer, and her photographs operate as psychic probes. “[She] has, as an artist, no formula,” Robert Adams describes Ross in Why People Photograph. “She starts over again each time—the riskiest way to do it.” Her view camera helps in this regard. It requires full her full attention, while its shiftable plane of focus isolates figures into their own thought balloons, blurring unimportant elements. The normal threat of such a slow bulky instrument is stasis and stagnation. In unskilled hands, the camera can overpower the moment, producing stillborn images pinned like butterflies under klieg lights. Judging by this book, Ross seems immune to such pitfalls. She wrangles her massive 8 x 10 with the relaxed candor of a birthday snapshot, her pictures catalyzed by a practiced instinct for gesture and interpersonal connection.

Again and again, Ross hits the mark. Her portraits are literally remarkable. Circumstances vary by project, and some —e.g., Hazleton and Congress—have required special access. But most subjects are encountered in the world and shot as found, generally outdoors with available light. That’s the case with a searing portrait of a teen boy in Eurana Park, 1982. He clings to his rake as if it’s the last one in the world, unwittingly recalling Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”. Another photo captures a girl at a 1991 Gulf War rally. Stiff with cold, she’s vulnerable to the camera as her hands shrink into coat sleeves. Congressional representatives are just as easily disarmed. John P. Hiler of Indiana, for example, gives himself to Ross with a selflessness atypical for DC power players. These and other photographs are marshaled into order by date and heading, but I’m left with the sense it might not matter much. We could plop Judith Joy Ross down in front of any person at any time, and she would peel back the shell to reveal their essence. “Everything you need to know about them is there,” she said about one of her portraits, a judgement which might apply to all of them.

That piercing revelation is the general goal of most portrait photographers. What sets Ross apart from contemporaries like Richard Avedon, Rosalind Fox Solomon, Bill Burke, and Larry Fink is the degree of empathy in evidence. Ross seems to be cheering for her subjects. One supposes they might even enjoy her pictures if shown them later, something decidedly not always true of, say, Diane Arbus or Rineke Dijkstra, who typically leveraged photography’s power dynamic into uncomfortable permutations. Even when capturing an unflattering angle or expression—Timmy Wright’s curvy mullet, for example, or Diana B’s sleepy gaze—the initiative seems less born of cruelty than matter-of-fact observation. Her portraiture recalls an era of less cynical interaction, perhaps the pre-war cheer of John Alinder or Lora Webb Nichols. Ross is openly reverential of August Sander, emulating and building upon his clean visual style. Her well known photograph of three preteen swimmers shot in 1988 in Easton, PA, for example, seems an homage to Sander’s “Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance.” Both pictures glow with direct attention and improbably perfect gaps.

The Ross series closest in spirit to Sander is probably her long term project “Jobs.” She’s made hundreds of such portraits over three decades and counting. Sadly there is only room for eight in the book. It’s a relatively small offering, but enough to convey the general flavor. Each subject is photographed in his/her typical work environment and clothing, looking calmly into Ross’s lens. Her accompanying captions are as plain and direct as her pictures. “Car rental salesman, Fogelsville, PA, ca 1990” reads one. Another is described “Gravediggers, Union Cemetery, Weatherly, PA, 1997.” Some listings include a name. It’s no stretch to connect “Jobs” to “People Of The Twentieth Century”, Sander’s massive effort to document the German people. Like Ross, Sander’s portrait were categorized and captioned by occupation: “Pastry Cook”, “Painter’s Wife”, “Bricklayer”, and so on. But while there are obvious similarities, the connection is not clear cut. Sander’s aim was encyclopedic. He was compiling a data base of humanity. Ross’s project, on the other hand, seems motivated by the vagaries of life paths. What is it like, her photos seem to ask, to be this person? To hold this job? Chuang’s edit hangs on the edge of both approaches, equally encyclopedic and humanist.

Pictures from “Jobs” have circulated here and there in exhibitions, along with many of the other series in this book. It’s a greatest-hits retrospective which will strike repeated chords with long-time Ross fans. But there are some unpublished treats in the mix too. The initial chapter “Beginnings” collects early street candids from the late 1970s, made before Ross had settled into view camera portraiture. Only a handful are shown, but they’re strong enough to whet the appetite. It would be great to see more somehow, if they exist.

At the other end of the book and the Ross timeline, are two tantalizing portraits circa 2012, both shot in color. These are outliers in a sea of monochrome, seeming even more out of place than the street candids, and too minimal to draw conclusions. Does she have more color work? Has she or did she shift to new tools or hues? The book is circumspect, and without more information it’s anyone’s guess. Color me, for one, intrigued. The good news is that this book cuts off at 2015, meaning that if Ross keeps going strong she may create enough new work for yet another retrospective. In that case another batch of piercing revelations is virtually guaranteed.

Collector’s POV: Judith Joy Ross is represented by Galerie Thomas Zander in Cologne (here). Her prints have only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $13000.

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One comment

  1. David I /

    JJR is a genius – one of the highest level artists working in photography today. I’d far rather have seen a retrospective of hers at MoMA, than the bloated Tillmans show you love so much. Her work radiates empathy & love, in a way that burns its way into your consciousness, unlike anything from the 6th floor at MoMA.

    Book is great, but the cover choice is way off – tight crop, confrontational, atypical. Really poor call on that, and covers matter. Still – very worth getting.

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