Living with War – Portraits
I once came across a recording of the folk singer John Prine, that tender but sharp witness to the troubled but trying, poor American soul. He was relating to an audience on a quiet day in Washington when, killing time before a show, he went with a friend to find the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He describes taking the index in hand and, hardly believing the extent of the directory that listed the 58,260 fallen, the friends searched until they found reference to someone they had both known and lost in the conflict.
This personal thread, amid the numerous pages of the fallen and ordinary, this brief but important significance, perhaps chimes with the moment that Judith Ross chose to relate in her photographs of similar visitors in 1983. At the same memorial, she photographed with her 10×8 camera across the first two years of its opening, making the four-hour drive from her small Pennsylvanian town to work there. Ross began a chapter of work that she must have felt moved to do. While maintaining a formal integrity that is consistent with her earlier portraits, her new subject moved beyond those in safe and rural childhoods, who felt an absolute belonging to the America stretching out ahead of them. Under the grey, flat light from which Ross has so often come to build the portraits in this handsome and affecting book, Maya Lin’s solemn construction could never have felt like anyone’s home.
Ross’ work is an important extension of a lineage in American portrait photography that moves on from Diane Arbus’ interest in the discordant exotic. Yet perhaps her work more closely acknowledges the quieter America that Chauncey Hare was drawn to in the 1970s – those citizens who people the industries and unremarkable communities and who, when the time inevitably comes, see their children leave to fight the filthy wars. Judith Ross has moved along this trajectory, continuing her consideration of the impact of conflict in 1990 when she photographed reservist soldiers, on Red Alert and waiting for mobilisation to the Gulf War and its inevitable consequences.
The emotional register Ross finds in her subject is extended through the precise detail in the resulting negative. It’s in the working procedure that the camera demands and in the acceptance Ross has for the manner in which her subjects hold themselves in front of her lens. The large format camera meant that she could work in a manner that has paced photography’s many seasons. Isolated by a process that turns backgrounds into shallow pools of shade or shadow, winter light occludes young protesters’ faces, sharpening eyes until they are glass-like, shining and distant.
Thinking about the 10×8 camera might bring suggestions of precision, of accuracy, yet there is something successfully loose about Ross’s pictures. There is detail, the shallow depth of focus rendering faces ever more urgently as the book progresses, isolating hair that blows across cheeks on these bright yet never comfortable days. But there is also an openness. Hands sometimes drift out of the frame, the cloth slogans, ribbons and tags pinned onto jackets drift to nothing, their messages dulled.
It’s this looseness, the dependence on a few simple elements in the frame that contributes significantly to the aura in Ross’ work. Further refined by the printing-out process, that allows print detail to emerge slowly to daylight before being warm-toned, they rely on very little. The pictures are occasionally confounding in their depth, beautifully clear studies that betray the potential of photography. While making particular the resonance of war, these pictures seem to do more. Perhaps like Prine’s “Sam Stone” – which details the long-term consequences of those affected by Vietnam with such aching detail – they speak of the long term, of the impact on lives that more common histories rarely – or adequately – choose to note.