New York

Judith Joy Ross

James Danziger Gallery

There’s an antique air to Judith Joy Ross’ portraits, a quality produced partly by the photographer’s technique—she uses a large-format camera with an old-fashioned shallow-focus lens, shoots with black and white film, prints the images on printing-out paper, and then gold-tones them to bring out subtle shades of lavender and red in the shadows. The poses of her sitters also seem to come from another era—or at least from a contemporary version of one. In the best pictures here, the people Ross photographs seem to have lost all shyness before the camera; indeed, they seem to gaze into the lens—and through it at the viewer—with an unabashed directness.

This sense of openness is most apparent in Ross’s portraits of children. Usually shot outdoors—as in the “Eurana Park” series, 1982, or in a recent group of portraits made for the YMCA in Easton, Pennsylvania—the children seem remarkably unselfconscious. They do not seem to strive to adopt a persona for the occasion. Instead they gaze steadfastly at the camera, which in turn gazes back at them, and the photographs that result reveal a remarkable lack of emotional projection on the part of the photographer.

Ross recognizes the dramatic possibilities in the scenes she depicts and doesn’t hesitate to exploit them. In one picture a girl sits on an earthen step in a park, while behind her a boy stands straddle-legged, backlit, and ghostly, like a spirit hovering behind her. In another, two girls, obviously sisters, face the camera with smiles of pleasure on their faces; next to them a third girl gazes out of the frame, seemingly caught up in herself and in her imagined future.

While the photographs of children serve as an essential theme to which Ross repeatedly returns, this exhibition also includes photographs of young visitors to the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, which gain emotional strength from the awkward oddness of the subjects’ faces. Who are they? Why did they come here? Aren’t they just the sort of youths whose deaths are memorialized on the famous black wall? Yes, of course they are, and this suggestion is the source of the emotional resonance of these images. In another politically inflected series, Ross photographed the people of Congress, including not only elected representatives and senators but anonymous aides as well. This democratic device emphasizes the shared humanity of Ross’ subjects; moreover, they are all caught off-guard, without the chance to adopt the poses they have grown so accustomed to. As a result, even famous politicians, such as Charles Rangel and Pat Schroeder, are seen as people rather than icons. The most recent series presented here, of khaki-clad National Guardsmen in camouflage-patterned uniforms, waiting to be shipped out to Saudi Arabia, brought the political overtones of Ross’ work full circle.

In some cases Ross is less successful in getting her subjects to let down their masks. When she doesn’t succeed, she is forced to fall back on cliché, and the people end up looking somber, soulful, melancholy, or even glum in predictable ways. In these pictures, it becomes painfully obvious just how strong Ross’ style has become. If anything, the link between Ross’ formal devices and her ability to capture her subjects at particularly revealing moments feels at times too implicated, and one longs for the brash directness of a flashlit picture. Ross’ photographs seem to come directly out of dreams, though not necessarily happy ones. In them everyone is seen for what they are, stripped of acquired roles and societal guises.

Charles Hagen