Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery
The portraits of Judith Joy Ross are featured in a new book and exhibition. Her Hazleton schools series include an image of the Stewart sisters.
The Portraits of Judith Joy Ross: Not Just Faces in the Crowd
THAT'S me when I was little," said the photographer Judith Joy Ross, pointing to a picture of a small girl, with blond hair and large plastic-framed glasses, standing next to a scuffed metal desk in a second-grade classroom. Dressed in a homemade skirt and top, the girl appears grave and guileless, her thin lips pressed into a straight line across her face.
In fact, this is not a picture of Ms. Ross — at least not literally. The portrait that so reminds her of herself belongs to a series of photographs she made between 1992 and 1994 in the public schools of her hometown, Hazleton, Pa., a small city in a former coal-mining region.
Ms. Ross, 59, is well known in photography circles for her tenderly attentive, black-and-white portraits of people, often children, who seem to radiate a soulful vulnerability. She generally works in series, motivated by a sense of civic inquiry and a keen curiosity about individual emotional lives.
Since the early 1980's, she has photographed children at a swimming hole in Pennsylvania, visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, members of Congress and their aides, and soldiers waiting to be shipped off to fight in the Persian Gulf war.
The Hazleton schools series arose out of her concerns about children's welfare, and by extension, the welfare of the adults they become.
"It's so silly, but I basically thought people would be willing to pay more taxes if they could just remember what it was like to be a kid," she said. "And I thought if they could remember that, they'd also treat each other better."
In 1992, as she was turning these ideas over in her mind, she received a phone call notifying her that she was the winner of a $25,000 Charles Pratt Memorial Award — a grant she had never heard of or applied for. With the necessary means to carry out the project, she decided to return to Hazleton to photograph in the public schools that she had attended in the late 1950's and 60's and where her mother had studied in the 20's.
"That's how it became personal," she said. "I feel like these pictures are my childhood. This isn't me, but it is me."
Now, more than a decade later, Ms. Ross has gathered 67 of these images into a new book, "Portraits of the Hazleton Public Schools," published by Yale University Press. In conjunction with the book's release, Pace/MacGill Gallery in Midtown is presenting a show of her photographs, opening on Thursday. A few weeks ago, Ms. Ross drove up from her home in Bethlehem, Pa., to discuss her work over lunch at the gallery.
"I started in the junior high school, and I was terrified," she recalled. "I thought, these kids are going to eat me alive." Back then Ms. Ross had a disorder similar to Tourette's syndrome that caused her to make involuntary sounds and movements. But on her first day at the school, all of her tics disappeared; instead, she developed double vision and could barely speak above a whisper.
"I had to drive home with a tissue stuffed over one eye," she said, "but I was just so grateful that they had morphed into something socially acceptable."
Ms. Ross, a forthright woman with a reedy voice and intensely observant blue eyes, spent three years haunting the classrooms of her youth, accompanied by a bulky 8-by-10 view camera mounted on a tripod and a powerful strobe light on a separate stand.
For the most part, the students ignored her. "Not once was there anyone saying, 'Hey lady, take my picture!' " she said. But when she asked them to pose, they willingly obliged.
"I basically think people want to be recognized and appreciated," she said, "and when you put a big camera in front of them, they think, 'I must be interesting.' Meanwhile, I'm struggling, tripping over the tripod and putting a goofy black cloth on my head. Because we're both vulnerable, that person gives me more of themselves."
In most of the portraits, the students, ranging in age from 6 to 18, face the camera head-on, with expressions and postures that convey a touching mixture of innocence, boredom, self-consciousness and angst. While the pictures are often funny and sweet, Ms. Ross's ability to connect with her subjects, to put them at ease, also gives them an uncommon emotional gravity.
You can witness this delicate balancing act in her portrait of the frizzy-haired, sad-eyed Stewart sisters, who stand side by side in the school's music room, dressed in nearly identical tie-dyed T-shirts, shorts and scuffed white sneakers. Or in her heartbreaking portrait of Randy Sartori, a first grader with messy blond hair who sprawls across his desk like a bored house cat, fixing the photographer with a look of quiet desperation.
"There's something that people give to her that they don't give to other photographers," Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery and a longtime supporter of her work, said by phone from New Haven. "People open up to her."
But this connection has strict boundaries. Ms. Ross said that she never got to know the students personally and hasn't kept in touch with them; most have never seen the portraits she made.
"This is the way I work," she said. "I'm in love with you intensely, and I don't ever have to see you again. I'm not big on intimacy, except in a visual way."
That visual intimacy extends to the prints themselves, which are small and have a level of detail fine enough to render the transparent fuzz on a teenage boy's chin. Using an arcane process, she makes the prints by sandwiching the negative with "printing-out paper," and exposing it to sunlight for a few minutes to a few hours. Later, she tones the prints with varying amounts of gold to produce shades of chocolate-y brown and soft, purplish grays.
With their small scale and antiquated look, Ms. Ross's pictures fall somewhat outside the mainstream of contemporary art photography. Though her subjects are modern, her understated style is closer to that of early 20th-century photographers like Eugène Atget, Lewis Hine and August Sander — all major influences on her work. There is also something willfully old-fashioned about her unironic, deeply humanist approach to portraiture.
"I think she's the only artist making photographic portraits in the traditional sense of the word," said Susan Kismaric, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art who wrote a 1995 monograph on Ms. Ross's work. "In contemporary photography, portraiture has become very intellectualized, and the idea of being able to photograph someone's character, or essence, or personality is now considered suspect."
By way of example, Ms. Kismaric cited the work of artists like Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff, who make large-scale color portraits that are sharply detailed yet oddly dispassionate.
Although Ms. Ross's photographs are in many major museum collections, their prices remain at the lower end of the spectrum for art photography, with editioned prints selling for $2,500 to $10,000. (By contrast, Ms. Dijkstra's larger color prints fetch prices ranging from $14,500 to $34,000.)
"She's at a disadvantage," Ms. Kismaric said. "The prints are small, they're not in color and they're emotional. Unless you buy 10 or 20 of them, they don't look great over the couch. A lot of photography at this point in time is about decorating. It's not about taking the time to look."
Ms. Ross agrees that her photographs require careful looking, in part because each image contains within it a small, irreducible human story.
"When I look at somebody," she said, "I think about their past and what their future could be, as well as what I'm seeing right now.
"A good story in a picture is much better than being alive. Being alive is complicated and hard, but a good picture — I can get lost in it."