Ron Jude, Lago

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 96 pages, with 55 color reproductions. Aside from a single quotation, there are no texts or essays included. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The single most intriguing aspect of Ron Jude’s impressive new photobook Lago is the place he has chosen to stand, and the subtleties of his choice have kept me coming back to this book repeatedly over the past few months to an effort to further get my arms around it. When I say “stand”, I’m not referring to where he has chosen to put his camera, or how he has framed certain shots, or even which things he has chosen (and not chosen) to photograph. What I mean is the psychological place in his head that he has used for orientation, or perhaps better, the conceptual approach he has taken to engaging the deliberately elusive narrative around his subject. He’s taken an understated, indirect path into this project, and that careful, measured thinking is to a large degree what gives the resulting book its durable pull.

While there is no mention of the backstory to this work anywhere in the book itself, the publisher’s website offers the clue that Jude lived in the desert regions of Southern California (near the Salton Sea) as a young child and that these new photographs were made during recent trips to that largely forgotten (at least in his mind) locale. So what we have here might loosely be called a homeward search, but one with little in the way of specific direction or focus – he doesn’t seem to have been purposefully looking for distant family members, or old houses, or the other nostalgic trappings of memory we might associate with such a road trip or journey. Instead, his return to the desert feels more like an open-ended engagement with the alien place in its current form, an effort to make observations and gather evidence that might offer connections to nonexistent memories, but without particular prejudice or preconceived conclusions about what should be found or what it might represent. This approach could easily have fallen into the familiar trap of clever deadpan coolness, but it doesn’t – there is clearly action and momentum around Jude’s process of looking (it comes through in the pictures), and there is a consistent presence to his choices that seems to flirt with ephemeral connection. That said, these fragments don’t coalesce into an identifiable narrative, which frustrates our ability to create meaning on his behalf and leaves us to draw our own conclusions about what he has discovered. The photobook is both personal and impersonal, engaging and aloof, or maybe just perfectly ambivalent.

Photographically, we’ve been to this desert before, and Jude is clearly aware of the turf his predecessors have already staked out. If we look hard, we can see the visual traces of the work of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and Richard Misrach (all of whom photographed in this region) in Jude’s pictures – the scrubby tilted palms, the abandoned construction, the isolated left over junk in the dust, and the contrast of sand and water to which the others gave prominence are all present. But Jude’s pictures have no overt or hectoring messages about ecological destruction or suburban development or cultural decay – he seems to have deliberately stepped back and assimilated his findings, instead of pushing forward with an urgent point of view that sits on the surface.

A sense of patient exploration pervades these pictures, the slow on-foot process of hunting, scrounging, and rummaging around in the heat giving a rhythm to Jude’s visual movements. He follows dusty paths and washed out trails, most often ending up at some kind of blocked end or final discovery, whether it be a fence (both functional and broken varieties, in chain link and cheap pressboard), a curtained window, a stand of scraggly desert scrub, or some forlorn object left to desiccate in the punishing sun. Flares of light catch his eyes and blind him now and again, and the heat seems to gather as the days progress, the hazy softness of the warm afternoon light offering little respite from the onslaught. Grace comes in small doses, from trash bags blown against a fence to broken electric wires dangling and fluttering in the air.

Even with all the obstructions in the landscape, many of these pictures seem to act like quiet invitations – a dry gully leading to water, a fallen fence letting us in, an open garage/shed offering cool shelter, a line of rusted cans snaking away like a trail of breadcrumbs to be followed. After another series of thwarted movements, visual echoes, and strange finds (a stray dog, a tarantula, a circular skid mark, a discarded vinyl record, a deflated soccer ball), the restless mood of the adventure ratchets up to the point of weary despair. And then like a master of suspense fiction, Jude releases all that built-up tension with a single stroke – an aimless recuperative float in gentle cool water. (For those who blow off steam in more aggressive ways, the picture of a makeshift cardboard box target pocked with BB gun holes that follows provides an alternate form of relief.)

The sequencing of the rest of the book doubles back on the visual themes seen earlier, the anxious fragmented progression of overbrightness, an abandoned well, and a dog delivering us back to uncertainty once again. Except for a brief moment when the skies darken and the gully fills with muddy water, the pictures return to cycles of perseverance and decay and opposing forms of shelter/enclosure, the tone once again arms-length curious but somehow engaged. A lonely single fruit hangs in a dry tree, old boots lie discarded in the dirt, and ants overrun a sculptural peeled orange. A ranch house and a dark stone cave offer housing options along a surprisingly similar spectrum, and the tarantula seen earlier is now surrounded by a glass jar, hemmed in just like the rest of this patch of harsh desert edge. The final image mixes brightness and cast shadow, where an overlooked bush is both subject and impediment, unexpectedly elegant but refusing to give up its secrets.

This photobook has grown on me over time, the subtle repetitions of pattern and form sinking in slowly like echoes of stories left to disappear into the desert. Ingeniously, Jude has found a way to dive deeply into his subject but also stand apart from it, and that dissonance of not-quite-there narrative, of pieces of a puzzle but not enough to complete the picture, gives the project an alluring shimmer.

Collector’s POV: Ron Jude is represented by Gallery Luisotti in Santa Monica (here), where an exhibition of his work will open later this month. Jude’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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