When Judith Joy Ross was asked what she hoped to achieve with her photographs of people, she said simply, “To know something about somebody.” It’s an uncommonly modest goal, but one that helps to explain the quiet, probing power of her work. The portraits that Ross has been making and exhibiting since the nineteen-eighties, nearly all of men, women, and children whom she’s encountering for the first time out in the world, are the result of looking closely and deeply, as if each moment that she captures matters. Ross’s attention is unwavering, and when her subjects return it there’s a flash of recognition between them. Her work isn’t merely a record of everyday life. It’s about the longing to connect and the pleasure of being truly seen.
Yet there’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of Ross or come across her work. Her debt to August Sander—and the sensitivity with which she made the German portraitist’s tradition her own—positioned her as a curator’s darling early on and as a photographer’s photographer ever since. In 1985, when she was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s influential “New Photography” exhibition, she had only one solo show to her name. Over the years, her presence has been flickering rather than steady, and it was easy to lose sight of her.
Ross has never been modern, much less postmodern; with few exceptions, her pictures are in subtly toned black-and-white. Aside from the occasional out-of-town project or trip abroad, nearly all her work has been made not far from where she was born and raised, in small-town eastern Pennsylvania. The photographer Larry Fink calls Ross “a force of sincerity,” which in these insincere times makes her a bit of a freak—and all the more valuable for it.
Just how valuable is evident in “Judith Joy Ross” (Aperture), the catalogue to her most comprehensive career-survey show, recently at Fundación MAPFRE’s Recoletos Exhibition Hall in Madrid and travelling in Europe through March, 2023 (with, maddeningly, no U.S. dates as yet). Organized chronologically, and featuring many previously unpublished images, the book finds Ross alert and engaged from the very beginning, not just as an observer but as a participant in what’s clearly an exchange of energies. Because Ross uses a bulky, old-fashioned eight-by-ten view camera on a tripod, her process is never hit and run. By the time her shutter clicks, her subjects’ guardedness has given way to curiosity about what the retrospective’s curator, Joshua Chuang, calls Ross’s “exquisite scrutiny.” Ross is especially good with children and young teen-agers, most of whom she catches at the height of their self-consciousness—helplessly, touchingly gawky. Many of her adult subjects, too, have a lovely outsider quality; Ross may not be drawn to damage, but she’s rarely excited by uncomplicated beauty. The strikingly good-looking young woman on the catalogue’s cover looks like she’s just had a fight with her mother and is ready to take it out on the photographer.
This pitch of feeling is rare in Ross’s photographs. Even when she finds her subjects at Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Ross is a model of restraint. Whatever emotion she’s experiencing is channelled into the work, allowing people to express themselves simply, just as they are. Chuang describes her approach as “steely delicacy.” She’s careful and concerned but remains at a certain remove—not unsympathetic, just focussed, at work and in control. This is especially apparent in a 1986-87 series she did at the U.S. Congress with individual officials and their aides, most of whom are emotionally unavailable by design. Like Richard Avedon’s “The Family,” the Bicentennial series on American power he made for Rolling Stone, Ross’s political portraits are mostly bland and informational, and all the more disappointing when viewed next to the pictures of ordinary citizens that fill the rest of her book.
What the Congressmen don’t display is vulnerability, which is something Ross nearly always zeroes in on but never exploits. Kids, who were the subject of her first great photographs, in 1982, continue to open up to her. She finds most of them in parks, playgrounds, and schools, and in her camera’s eye even the geekiest become sprites and charmers. Maybe because Ross never stands outside the work, her best photographs seem caring and understanding, full of feeling but not indulgent. Of the many new images in this collection, her pictures of unpopulated places and landscapes come the closest to sentimentality. In one sequence, Ross returns to her family’s rural home, peering into empty rooms, investigating but never disturbing. Yet landscape doesn’t offer Ross the engagement that people do. It’s the portraits that find her looking as if with her whole being: penetrating, absorbing, knowing.