JUDITH JOY ROSS’s Timeless and Empathic Portraits

9 Sep 2021
Essay by Rebecca Bengal

Ross has been called one of the greatest portrait photographers in the history of the medium. As a long-overdue retrospective opens in Europe, a new generation will witness her radical belief in the individual.
Judith Joy Ross wants to show me her garden. As she throws open the back door to her home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a large brown rabbit flashes across the yard, a comet trail vanishing into a maze of plants vivid and green against the gray sky. Ross turns to me, her face bright with excitement, “Did you see that?” I am reminded of a story I had heard, how once, while driving in rural Pennsylvania, Ross had seen something in a kid’s face that caused her to pull the car over abruptly, drag her 8-by-10 camera out of the car, and call after two boys, aged twelve or so. Within moments, as Ross disappeared under the cloth and the boys began to arrange themselves before her lens, the alchemy of their connection became palpable.

Those particular photographs did not materialize—there was a problem with the film that day—but the Judith Joy Ross pictures that do survive are the representation of thousands of such lightning encounters dating back to the late 1970s and first widely introduced at the 1985 New Photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (...)