Judith Joy Ross is an American photographer who was born 75 years ago in Hazleton, a mining town in Pennsylvania. He walks slowly and seems somewhat absent, but he begins to see and talk about his 200 images exhibited by the Mapfre Foundation, in Madrid, its largest retrospective, and he transforms: he gestures, lets go of a few “fucking”, takes complicity by the arm and speaks with tenderness of his portrayed, except for some of his series on US congressmen. That delicacy is reflected in his precious black and white, achieved with a voluminous bellows camera on a tripod and with a direct printing paper in contact with the negatives, large, which is then exposed to natural light. A process from the Victorian era. In a black T-shirt and jeans, with her short gray hair tousled, she stops almost before every photo; he could be talking hours about his job which, after all, has been his life.
PHOTO GALLERY: Retrospective of Judith Joy Ross at the Mapfre Foundation
Judith Joy Ross, the photographer who captures everyday life in her portraits
The first photograph of the exhibition, curated by Joshua Chuang and which will remain until January 9, 2022, is the last that he has taken of the exhibits, in 2015. It is a portrait of a young woman that he titled persephone, by the Greek goddess of the underworld, who is holding in one hand a mobile with a cover decorated with a shining skull and wearing a flower headband. “It was a normal Russian girl who worked at a gas station and whom I met for a walk. So, a brother of mine was dying and for me, she, in that image, expressed that idea of the goddess, of someone with whom we are all going to meet ”, he explains. Ross, a great master of portraiture, does not know how to explain what makes him choose his photographed: “I am like a radar, a collector of people.”
His work, which can be seen at MoMA, has been developed with special photographic equipment, which weighs about 13 kilos. “It attracted attention, as if the circus came to town. I get under the black cloth of the camera and from there I talk to the model. I tell them that they look magnificent and that is how we take the photo between two of us. It usually takes me five or ten minutes. ” Ross opens his arms when asked if he hasn’t had the curiosity of digital and color: “I’m 75 years old, I haven’t had another damn choice. I don’t know how to use other equipment. I also did not know that this [la fotografía] it was going to change so much to become stupid. “
As a young man, he began studying art at a school in Philadelphia, painted, then took a master’s degree in photography at the Chicago Institute of Design and began teaching. At the age of 17 he had taken the photo that led him to the art of the image: “I saw that Vietnam veteran who was lying down, sleeping on a bus. That link with what I was photographing, that connection with the human being, convinced me to dedicate myself to this. Photography allows me to enter the lives of others without them knowing it, ”he says.
This happens with his “first very good photos”, those he took of children in a park in Weatherly (Pennsylvania), in 1982. “My father had died a year before and he was sad, so I went to that place and saw that the people who were sitting also had a sad expression, except the children, and since I needed to rejoice, I photographed them ”. He did it with a dim light that reflects the innocence on their faces.
That concern about the sadness that people show when they do not know they are observed prompted him to go to the Vietnam Veterans Monument, in Washington, in 1985. “I don’t show the monument at any time. The monument is in their faces ”, although he acknowledges that“ you have to read the fucking poster to know what these photos are about ”. Children, young people who may have lost a relative and are saddened. “Hundreds of people passed by and I was embarrassed to ask if I could take a picture of them, I felt out of place, but they accepted because their heart was broken, you can feel it.” Like that kid who looks at the names of the dead. She sent each of those portrayed a copy along with a small object, a custom from her early days as a photographer.
Later, thanks to a Guggenheim grant, he was able to develop his series on 100 congressmen in 1987. “It was the opportunity to show people that they have power. They are boring, but they are human beings. One comes out with dark circles, exhausted, another can see beads of sweat on his head… ”. She points to a man and recalls: “This one was so arrogant that he was brushing his teeth and while he was talking to me he kept doing it. However, it was a job that allowed me to realize what I could do, that I could have the upper hand ”.
With no new assignments, Ross worked cleaning houses for three years, until an award, in 1992, returned her to what she liked. “I said to myself: ‘I’m going to photograph education.’ I was struck by the fact that the textbooks had hardly any pictures, which indicates how important teaching is to the United States ”. It’s a poignant series made in Hazleton public schools: a girl with glasses, “that could have been me,” laughs; “The bad girls in the class waiting to enter the principal’s office to be scolded, a Polish teacher who taught Spanish; look at this young man, what hair… ”.
The tour continues with more children, those who lived near their home. “I wanted to show them as they are, not as the advertising tells them how they should be and dress.” Ross gets closer to another fantastic shot: the one of two twins and their older sister, barefoot in a park. “Look at them, with their feet like ducklings. The youngest are innocent, they still don’t know what life is about ”. In the background, out of focus, a boy observes them: “It looks like Romeo waiting for them.”
The people of northeastern Pennsylvania follow one another in the final stretch of the exhibition. “Everyone likes to look good in a photo, well, I suppose this man did not like to go out with that tripon, but it is endearing because he is posing with his friend.”
It is the authenticity, the purity that exude the faces of the ordinary people that Ross has photographed. The one in the passers-by that he portrayed looking from New Jersey in amazement at the smoking Twin Towers after the Al Qaeda attack. “The normal, the common, it seems magnificent to me. I am a photographer because I like to explain things with images ”.