Judith Joy Ross: Portraits of the United States Congress 1986-1987 @Deborah Bell

JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 black-and-white photographs, matted and framed, hung on four walls of the fourth floor in this townhouse gallery. All the prints are 10×8 in. gelatin silver on POP, signed, titled, dated in pencil on verso, and issued in editions of 10. Nineteen are vintage and dated 1986; 6 were printed in 2016. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: I doubt that any members of this U.S. Congress, photographed in their Washington, DC offices or nearby hallways, had a vivid memory of their encounters with Judith Joy Ross. Posing for pictures countless times a week goes with the job of running for public office. These were busy men and women. If any developed close personal ties to the then 40-year old Pennsylvania-based artist, those strong feelings aren’t revealed here. A lowly staffer may have showed them an example or two of her portraits taken at the Vietnam War Memorial—exhibited at MoMA in 1985—as she was negotiating how much time she would be given with each member. But nothing on their faces or in their body language indicates a lasting emotional transaction took place during these 1985-86 sessions.

That was fine with Ross, who was granted 15 minutes for each appointment: 5 minutes to set up her 8×10 camera, 10 minutes to focus and coax a useable picture from people she had never met before. All of her subjects were shot with available light. Of these strict conditions, she has said: “Having little time to shoot is good, as it helps you give your all.”

In abjuring elaborate studio lighting and the other standard paraphernalia of commercial photographers, Ross adopted a style conspicuously at odds with the one famously employed by Richard Avedon in his Portraits of Power. Those 69 photographs of America’s governing elite, commissioned by Rolling Stone in 1976, burned with a psychological intensity, as if Avedon hoped his camera might at last see flickers of regret on the faces of McGeorge Bundy or Robert McNamara or Henry Kissinger about their roles in the Vietnam War, which had ended only the year before.

Ross doesn’t exhibit that sort of ambition or pretense; any agenda she had was carefully hidden. In their modesty and gentle shades of gray, her portraits are closer in spirit to Walker Evans’s or Mark Steinmetz’s than to the klieg-light bleakness of Avedon’s sanitarium for American sinners and war criminals. Instead of isolating her subjects like insects on a board, she has used their office surroundings to describe them with non-judgmental sympathy. About half are posed with other pictures in the blurry background.

Like Avedon, though, she has used seriality to satirize self-importance and cut grandiose politicians down to size. Rep. Pat Schroeder, the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado, photographed with her eyes closed, is in Ross’s eyes the equal of former Presidential-candidate and fervent segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. These men and women are nothing more than civil servants. They occupy the same 10×8 space inside her camera and on the walls here.

This is an idealistic view of politics, and an illusion. Power is, of course, not evenly distributed in any institution. Schroeder never exercised the clout of Thurmond or Sen. Robert C Byrd of West Virginia. A photographic portrait isn’t able to analyze these issues, however, or disclose much of anything about character. Avedon’s frustration over this limitation of the medium was often evident, whereas Ross’s attitude seems less self-critical. She is not expecting that her camera could read the minds or probe the souls of anyone in 10 minutes. Her portrait of Rep. James Traficant, Jr. of Ohio is kind—and inaccurate. You wouldn’t guess from her portrait that he was a notorious loud mouth and a crook who went to prison for bribery. Only his flamboyant comb-over hints at an instinct to deceive.

Politics is not a glamorous profession—Washington, D.C. is often called Hollywood for ugly people—and Ross’s series reinforces this view. They are a bland, pasty bunch. Most of them are male; all but three are Caucasian; and none is outstandingly attractive. Among the men, only Rep. Norman Mineta of California (later Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush) manages to present himself with any ease, by not cinching the knot of his necktie.

Ross tried to keep her own liberal leanings in check but a few differentiations can be seen. She researched voting records of her subjects in the Almanac of American Politics. “I picked people I agreed with and people I disagreed with,” she said in a 2016 Aperture interview. “This was very inspiring.

Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island was often described as “patrician,” and her portrait of the bone structure in his lean face lets you see why. Rep. William “Bill” Dickenson of Alabama was a Cold War hawk and a staunch opponent of integration who once accused Civil Rights marchers of sexual debauchery. In Ross’s portrait, he crowds the frame, his belly swelling inside his jacket.

She ended up photographing 177 members of Congress and their aides, a series that was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1987 as part of the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.

None of these men and women are still in office. Many are dead. Although only about 5% of the members in 1985-87 were women compared to 19% in 2017-19, those numbers—and those of minorities in general—do not yet reflect the diversity of the population as a whole. Notwithstanding the election and reelection of the country’s first black President, Ross might find—were she asked to photograph the current U.S. Congress—that the complexion of American power has not changed dramatically over 30 years.

Something to keep in mind as you study these ordinary faces, and need to add to the list of worries about the future of the disunited states.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $5000 for non-vintage to $10000 for vintage. Ross’ 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. Pete /

    Informative review, thank you.

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