Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Judith Joy Ross- Living With War

Every successful portraitist has their own particular shtick that allows them to photograph their subject in the manner and style of their choosing. Some photographers (eg- Arbus) developed reputations for being quite aggressive, others for engaging in direct and pointed conversation (eg- Avedon), recently some even extol the virtues of veering away from having direct interaction with their subject.

And once they've dispensed with the personal niceties, there's the little matter of how they're going to actually compose and shoot that face, that body, that flesh and blood person before them into a meaningful portrait that will somehow, someway transcend their mere physical presence. Avedon portrays every nook and cranny, every crease and fold, devoid of any background distraction- their faces, clothes and bodies all alluding to their personal history and travails. Arbus portraits were as straightforward and simple as simple could be- her counter culture subjects always provided the necessary plot twists and distractions. Bruce Davidson uses his subject's immediate environment, Platon his clean but highly orchestrated lighting, and even the subjects of Mr. Sander's typological portraiture often included a uniform or tool of trade for contrast and content.

I mention all this because upon seeing Living With War by Judith Joy Ross, I'm left amazed and clueless as to how she achieves such somber, reflective and deeply intimate portraits. She photographs (for the most part) people who are the male and female equivalents of your very Average Joes, apparently in available light. Depth of field is shallow, subject details minimal with backgrounds well out of focus. And yet, her portraits manifest as some of the most revealing and intense ever captured on film, or any other medium- as if her subjects momentarily invite us in to share their inner conflicts, hopes and fears.

Avedon's performance art shooting style, in which he engages his subjects in conversation with entire studio entourage in tow, often results in his subjects' presentation of themselves as some heightened or hybrid portrayal of the character he elicits. And he may even score more "winners," his detail rich characters are always worth intense study like any finely detailed map, as opposed to say... some of the straight on compositions (which occasionally fall flat) in The Army Reserve section of Living With War. JJR's bare bones, no frills approach allows no filler to pick up the slack when "the magic" fails to appear. Fortunately, that magic never roams far, and takes us places a map can only suggest.

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