"When I look at somebody, 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." – JJR
One of the photographers in the "Picturing Childhood" exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins who is not terrifically well known is Judith Joy Ross. I thought it might be nice to feature her here so that you can learn a bit more about her.
Ross [now 63], is 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 [which is represented in the Nelson-Atkins exhibition] 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."
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."
"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 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."
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."
Ross has 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 has 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.
Ross agrees that her photographs require careful looking, in part because each image contains within it a small, irreducible human story.
- From a NYT article by Mia Fineman, April, 2006