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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Judith Joy Ross

Ross-Stewart Sisters

Judith Joy Ross is a fine arts portrait photographer. Throughout her career, she has focused her 8×10 view camera on both common people in common places (a swimming hole in rural PA, visitors to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, troops getting ready to ship off to war) and on the policy-makers whose decisions affect the lives of common people (members of US Congress). She is perhaps best known, though, for her Hazleton Public School portrait series.

Ross grew up in Pennsylvania’s coal country. In the late 1950s and 1960s she went to school in the same public school buildings her mother attended in the late1920s. In the 1990s, she returned to those same schools to photograph the students. Of these portraits Ross has said, "I feel like these pictures are my childhood. This isn’t me, but it is me."

There is a directness and a lack of irony in the way Ross creates these portraits. Much of the power of the photographs comes from the subject’s innocence and lack of sophistication. "I basically think people want to be recognized and appreciated," Ross has said. "When you put a big camera in front of them, they think, ‘I must be interesting.’"

Ross-Christmas Pageant

And they’re right; they are interesting. Ross cultivates their desire to be interesting…but only for the time it takes to get the portrait. "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." Ross said she didn’t get to know the students personally and hasn’t kept in touch with them. She has no idea if they’ve even seen their portraits.

That strange combination of intimacy and emotional distance gives the portraits an old-fashioned feel. That feeling is reinforced by her use of an 8×10 view camera, by her primitive lighting, and the arcane process she uses to print her images. Ross sandwiches the large negative with printing-out paper, which she then exposes to sunlight for a few minutes to a few hours. Afterwards, she tones the prints in a process that produces shades of brown or grays that are tinged with purple. The result of all that labor is a photograph that could have come from the camera of August Sander.

Ross-Brian Ellis

In the end, it’s the directness and simplicity of portraiture that drives Judith Joy Ross. You stand there, she takes your photograph, something about you and your life is revealed…and that’s enough. "A good story in a picture is much better than being alive," according to Ross. "Being alive is complicated and hard, but a good picture — I can get lost in it."