UK Art Museum, Lexington
116 Singletary Center
artist / participant
Photographer Judith Joy Ross once asked her mother how she managed to cope when Ross and her two brothers misbehaved, nearly driving her crazy. “She replied that she would just look at us very, very hard—not to stare us down, but rather to look and look until she truly saw us, and who we really were to her,” Ross says.
It is exactly this quality, this desire to see with understanding rather than judgment, that distinguishes Ross’s portraits, whether she is photographing schoolchildren in all their glorious individuality and heartbreaking vulnerability, or National Guard soldiers about to go off to the Gulf War, or, in her most recent series, protesters of the Iraq War.
Working with an old-fashioned view camera that produces 8 x 10 negatives, Ross must disappear under a black cloth, somewhat like a magician, to focus and make her exposure. The unwieldy equipment and film plates make it unlikely that her subjects could be taken unaware; rather, she asks permission to photograph, and allows her subjects to reveal themselves to her.
At first glance, the straightforward images of people centered in the frame belie their complexity. Often, the space they inhabit is not clearly defined, leaving the viewer without environmental clues to identity. We are left, instead, to read their faces, in a type of portraiture that has become suspect in the postmodern age. “Ross portrays nothing less than our common existential condition—that often terrible psychological sense of being alone in an indifferent world, and having to create meaning for our lives,” observes Susan Kismaric, photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
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Judith Joy Ross