Judith Joy Ross - Photographer, USA

“People Portraits”


© Judith Joy Ross - ”Alpaca and Girl Scout”, 2009


LS: Over the course of the past thirty years, you have produced a remarkable oeuvre focusing on portraiture. Why photograph People?
As soon as I took my first photography class in 1967, I was drawn to photographing people. So I would like to start with a photo from that time, of a soldier in a bus. Because I still have the print I can remember making this picture otherwise it would all be lost. I can remember sneaking out of my seat on the bus to get closer to him because he was so moving. The picture honors what this man’s life was at that moment. Even if it isn’t exactly clear what his situation is but one can think that they know. One can guess. One can care about him. So that is why I photograph people. I found I could capture the emotional and poetic truth of someone.
Nothing much about making pictures has really changed since then except that I have worked with a 8xI0″ view camera since 1981. It is still about seeing something in a person and working up the nerve to photograph them. It may or may not be harder to do that with a view camera than a handheld camera but I have convinced myself that total strangers let me photograph them because my camera is so interesting. Best of all, because it is difficult to even frame a picture with a large camera, and I think I may come to more complex solutions for picture making and pass over the easy pictures I might have made with a handheld camera. I also do not know if this is true. The fact that I have too much tremor to use a handheld camera prevents me from seeing this as false which it no doubt is.


© Judith Joy Ross - The Stewart Sisters ,1992. From “Portraits of the Hazleton Public Schools”, 1992-94

© Judith Joy Ross - Ryan and Mr. Brubaker, A.D. Thomas Elementary School, Hazleton, Pennsylvania 1992. From “Portraits of the Hazleton Public Schools”, 1992-94


LS: In general, there is also nothing spectacular about the settings you chose for your portraits, but at the some time are so perfect for describe the American society.
Isn’t this just typical of photography, giving credit to the world for looking as it does. Thank God and Daguerre and Talbot, some bits of reality end up in a photograph. I am intent on the person I am photographing and do not stage pictures. I work fast with the 8×10” because I am accommodating the person who is a stranger who is giving me their time. I do not want a picture to be “beautiful”. I want it to be like reality which means it should have lots of the ordinary stuff of life in it. I try to make sure to record what must be known just as any one else would do. I do not pick out an environment and put a person in it. I photograph the person in the environment come what may.


© Judith Joy Ross - “Congressman William Dickenson, Republican, Alabama”


© Judith Joy Ross - “Senator William Roth, Republican, Delaware”. From “Portraits of the U.S. Congress” 1986-87

© Judith Joy Ross - Marie Bond, Reading, Pennsylvania. From” Protest the War “, 2005-06


LS: Tell me about your various series of photographs and how you chose these subjects.
JJR: I work in series since my subjects seem to require it. The first three series I made, ”Eurana Park, Weatherly, Pennsylvania “1982, “Portraits at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C” 1983-84 and “Portraits of the U.S. Congress” 1986-87 have to do with discovering what I needed to know about myself and life. All the series that followed were about things I knew and wanted other people to see these things too. I could say all the pictures are about the particular value of individuals in the ordinary arc of life… portraits of people at school, at work or play, at church, while voting or just there at home or on the street and of course at war over and over. The very last series I did was people with nature, a very difficult subject to even find. It is more common and perhaps natural to be in a car or a mall than with nature. In fact I met a man at a dinner party last week who told me in the course of our conversation “I loathe nature”. This being the exact opposite of my own view, I asked him to explain further. He said for him Nature was frightening and unknowable and there was so much of it. It was a shocking but refreshing revelation to learn how things are for perhaps a majority of Americans who prefer the mall to a field or a parking lot to a pond. It really perfectly explains the driving force of American culture which basically needs nature to make money or hopes for it to disappear. It takes me a long gestation period to come up with project and it seems then to be something I have to do or am committed to doing. I made “Eurana Park, Weatherly Pennsylvania” 1982 because I needed to learn once again, what children knew about life.
I made “Portraits Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.” 1983-84 to learn how to deal with pain and suffering. I made pictures which express that it is cannot be known what the war was. It is too enormous and overwhelming and too many things to many people. I had the intitial intention to make a reqium mass in photographs. I of course I could have no idea what that would look like. The portraits are what I discovered there with the help of all the people I photograhed. I had to make “Portraits of the United States Congress” in 1986-87. This was truly strange as I could say that I had not done particularly well with the authority figures in my own life and so what was I doing with these folks you may well ask. Well, it turns out, I realized years later, I was dealing with them (authority figures) on my own terms. I was in charge of seeing and saying who they were through the act of photographing. In America we get advertisements in the mail and television to help us vote for candidates. On the local level of government no one advertises what political party they are. It is actually incomprehensible. I have seen German election campaign pictures on the streets of Koln and all the candidates looked to me liked a dating profile. In America, political images are all bullshit, so slick and meaningless so I was not sure any of these people were real human beings. At least my portraits prove the members of Congress are all too human. I do not know who would be elected based on my photographs.


© Judith Joy Ross - Untitled. From “Portraits at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Washington, D.C.”, 1983-84

© Judith Joy Ross - Untitled. From “Portraits at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Washington, D.C.”, 1983-84


LS: How did you photograph with equanimity the Members of the United States Congress?
Well if you are looking for the truth then its just bigger than your opinion and you get carried there naturally with a camera if you are attracted to the idea of photography and truth being of the same cloth.
Then again, I do not know if I did or did not photograph with equanimity and I don’t think it matters. Of course, some members of Congress who shared my political views I found to be jerks and some with whom I had disagreement were appealing and vice versa. I made good pictures of them all. Some members of Congress had a natural or true dignity others looked like most of us will after the age of 55, which is to say like living cartoons. Then of course there is just such complexity to humanity which resulted in a lot of good photographs. I just never photographed anyone I deemed totally despicable… I got close to doing so but in such circumstances would naturally fail to make a good picture. I had worked like a dog to get a 15 minute appointment in a congressional office. I had to make those minutes count. I had not seen this person before except in a photograph. I was meeting these important people for the first time. I had researched them and had a strong opinion about them and had to make a great picture. It was my hard earned 15 minutes so I paid close attention and gave it my all. What would you do… hold on to your opinion or wouldn’t you simply experience the actual person and make a picture of that. So it is not hard to be “truthful”. Sometimes I was too tired or lacking in opportunity and thus“occasionally made” as Susan Kismaric has said, a portrait that “ tended towards caricature”. But as I occasionally made such pictures of members of both political parties, it was fair and led to funny pictures, which we all need. I was trying to tell the truth and the result is close enough for me. Making a good portrait is like falling in love with a person except that you don’t have to marry anyone, you only have to make a good print.



Interview curated by Camilla Boemio