Conversation with Ron Jude
Ahorn Books, 2017
Ahorn Books has published a volume of writings exploring Ron Jude’s book of photographs, Lago (MACK 2015). It contains a conversation between David Campany and Ron Jude.
Conversation between David Campany and Ron Jude
David: Ron, I am trying to recall my very first impressions of Lago. The overriding feeling was one of suspension. Places, images, perhaps even a photographer, all caught between an unspecified ‘what was’ and something else, out in a desert somewhere. I know all photographs are by definition suspensions, but it was a strong feeling I got from your book. And it made my movement through the pages – from image to image – something quite unlike narrative. More of a looping, recursive wandering. A book, particularly a book of photographs, can produce its own world, with its own parameters, so I began to wonder if Lago was describing a real place, a state of mind, or some mixture of the two.
Ron: I think the word suspension is a good one. You’re right, all photographs are suspensions, but in the case of these pictures, I’ve deliberately tried to exploit that trait and to make it part of the point. I don’t mean this in the theoretical sense, but in the actual experience of moving through this place through images. I wandered around in the desert on and off for a little over four years, and there was never any narrative cohesion to what I was experiencing or looking for. I was indeed in a real place, but what I was looking for hadn’t been there in almost fifty years, so I could only hope to catch the occasional glimpse of something that seemed recognizable. It’s a place that exists both now, in front of us, and as a backdrop for how I came to form my first cognitive engagement with the world. So, I would agree that it is a mixture of both a real place and a state of mind. I would say this is true of most of my work. It’s all based in some sort of external reality, and the photographs have the surface appearance of utility, but that utility is on very unstable ground. The “looping” effect that you mention was something I wanted to push with this particular project. I’ve played with narrative structure pretty consistently over the past ten years, and with Lago I wanted to see how far away from discernible narrative I could get before the whole thing fell apart, to walk right up to that edge. It’s difficult because it has to have some kind of backbone otherwise it could just wander off into oblivion. But I wanted to find a way into an internal world through an external one, without giving in to mannered visual devices or sophomoric surrealism. It’s a pretty narrow representational gap to locate.
David: Four years is a long time. At what point did you feel it would become a book? Did the book as an end point shape the making of the pictures, or was that quite a separate consideration?
Ron: There were practical reasons that it took four years —I was living in upstate New York while working on a project in the California desert—but I tend to take a long time to get things done anyway. To a large degree this has to do with my working process. I don’t really know what it is I aim to do when I start a project. (Sometimes I don’t even know if I can define things as a “project”.) I might have some general goals in mind, but things don’t really materialize as specifics until I’m well into something. I know how to make pictures, and that part is always enjoyable, but there’s a lot of hand wringing when it comes to giving things shape through context. This is the part I don’t trust doing too quickly. So in a way, having practical limitations restricting how fast I can work serves the development of the ideas well. It’s good to have some distance between my thinking about the bigger idea and making the pictures. I get too excited about pictures that I like immediately after I make them. Those are usually the ones that don’t make the cut in the end.
Lago is the first project I’ve ever done where I knew fairly early on that a book would be the thing that helped me deliver the real content of the piece. I can’t say that I made the pictures with that in mind, but I was trying to identify patterns and subsets within a year or so of starting the project. Regardless of the intended outcome, however, I tried to keep the image making aspect of making the work separate from considerations that came later on. I always consider shooting to be a somewhat sacred process of gathering raw material and simply responding to things, rather than an intellectual endeavor. This isn’t to say that I don’t think about what I’m doing while I’m shooting, it’s just that I don’t try to prematurely fit things in. The risk of working that way, I think, is ending up with a bunch of photographs that lack surprise and feel like illustrations.
David: I recall a late interview with Walker Evans, in which he said: “The essence is done very quickly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine. I think […] that photography is editing, editing after the taking. After knowing what to take you have to do the editing.” But he very rarely thought about the editing – the putting of pictures in relation to each other – while he was actually shooting. It was done after. The picture making was separate, sacred, as you put it. Each image was a unit, its own thing, even though Evans would then put them together across pages. This seems a less common way of pursuing photography these days. Many photographers seem to feel that to take themselves seriously they have to be thinking beyond the single image while in the very act of making the single image. You’ve never really worked that way…
Ron: There have been times when I’ve tried to work that way, or I’ve thought maybe it would be a good idea, but it never works for me. As I mentioned before, the pictures just end up looking like illustrations and they’re flat and unsurprising. I read years ago that Jem Southam considered the act of making pictures a “process of discovery”. I like this way of describing it. I think it’s okay to have a basic framework or some underlying concerns that you’re pursuing, but that shouldn’t drive the making of individual photos. When I was shooting Lago, I would pick a place on the map to go to make pictures, and it was often the case that I wouldn’t even make it to my destination. Most of the pictures I made for this project are products of aimless wandering, of getting lost. Over the years I’ve come to trust this process, although when I was younger it made me nervous, it made me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing.
David: In the desert, light is such a palpable presence. It can give things a kind of hyper-lucid quality. But the desert is so often a semi-abstract space, pictorially and socially. It seems to lend itself to making clear pictures with unclear meanings.
Ron: The light in the desert is incredibly seductive, so much so that it’s become a bit of a photographic trope. On my first couple of trips out there to shoot around Salton Sea I had to consciously avoid making pictures at certain times of the day, lest I end up making Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos Part II. I really love the pictures Misrach made out there in the 80s, but after he defined what the place looks like for the rest of us, it’s hard to avoid simply plugging into that formula—all you have to do is set up your tripod at Bombay Beach and wait. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. This led me to really think about the harsh light of mid-day in the desert and how that could better serve what I was after in terms of a psychological encounter with the landscape. I like the way you describe this effect as “clear pictures with unclear meanings.” To a large degree this has always been my goal with photographs—to describe a place with such clarity that it becomes disorienting. And yes, the social realm of the desert, as well as the blinding light and unbearable heat, amplifies this effect. There’s also a mythology surrounding the desert, which becomes conflated with photographic representation and morphs it into a “semi-abstract space”. I also think the same is true of the darkness of the deep forest, which is something I explored prior to Lago. I’m drawn to the places for autobiographical reasons, but they also render in a way that serves some of the other, more abstract ideas I’m interested in.
David: As the project took shape were there images that became key to the process? I ask this because as a viewer I have found the emphasis shifting as I’ve lived with the book. The images which at first seemed pivotal now seem less so, as others seem to come to the fore. Maybe this is another effect of what you were saying about each image being sacred and the links between them being only tentative. It allows the single picture to float in and out of consciousness, in and out of priority. But I still wonder if particular pictures were touchstones for you.
Ron: What I meant by my hyperbolical “sacred” remark was not so much about the images themselves, but the process of making them. I think Walker Evans said it better when he described the processes of shooting and editing as “discreet”. The flow between the images, once I got to that part of the process, was just as labored over and important to me as the making of the pictures. (Of course, the goal is to make it look like it wasn’t labored over…) There are images that I consider to be important in terms of how they contribute to the overall structure of the book, such as the pictures of citrus, the pictures of water and the pictures of fences. Other images that I consider to be important are those which act as binding elements between images or groups of images, such as the photograph of the dilapidated chain link gate, which follows and echoes the gesture of the boy leaning on the fence (which is then followed by the inexplicable appearance of a toppled ladder on a sand dune). For me, these are the pictures that float in and out of consciousness. Of course, I have my “favorites” too—those images that don’t necessarily contribute as much to the syntax of the piece, but do contribute to the atmospherics of this quasi-fictional place I was trying to create—images such as the downed palms in the foreground of multiple wind blown palms surrounding a house in a dust storm, or the enormous concrete block, sinking into the ground.
David: Sunken… fallen…toppled…blown… this sense of ‘afterwardsness’ puts you, and by extension the viewer/reader in quite a spectral position, moving through a landscape with a past tense. As if the place has gone on existing beyond its expiry, and would look much the same the next day, the next year. But then there are images with very much a sense of the present – the animals, the boy floating just so in calm water, and the sudden rush of what looks like a flash flood. For me these appearances counter the reverie and the suspension to indicate… well, if not the now, then at least the particularity of the moments in which you encountered them.
Ron: I think that’s a good way to describe how things work with these photographs as they bump up against each other. It’s meant to echo two simultaneous states of consciousness—the cobbled together narrative of the past dovetailing with the constantly unfolding and meandering narrative of the present. It wasn’t arbitrary that I did this work in the desert, as this is literally the landscape that holds my earliest memories, but it couldn’t have been a better location for the reasons you’ve described. The water photographs were meant to serve as a backdrop device that not only helped bring you through the sequence of the book, but also shifted between the present and the past through the way it moves between a static and kinetic state, sometimes drying up completely or becoming stagnant. I saw David Lynch’s Inland Empire around the time I took the first photographs for Lago, and it had a lasting impact on how I wanted this body of photographs to operate in terms of a looping narrative and alternating states of consciousness. I think you can see similarities between Lago and Emmett in this respect. (Emmett is a book I made in 2010 that dealt with many of the same ideas, but through a photographic archive, rather than new photographs.)
David: With Emmett you returned to photographs made a quarter century earlier but in many ways the loops and ellipses that you mentioned there are really conditions of the unconscious and involuntary memory. The unconscious does not obey the norms of waking life and shared reality. Things from yesterday rub against things from years ago and can seem very much of the moment, or quite distant in time. A photograph made in a whole other phase of one’s life can suddenly seem to belong to the present. And this scrambles the commonplace ways in which we’re supposed to think about what is contemporary and what is historical. It’s interesting that avant-garde cinema has always been keen to push against narrative convention – as in Lynch’s Inland Empire – but since still photography implicitly struggles with narrative convention anyway its seems much more natural for it to deal with the layering and folding of time.
Ron: Yes, I think non-experimental filmmakers have to consciously and deliberately push against narrative norms, as time-based media organically and easily slips into linear story telling modes, whereas photography has narrative difficulties built-in, at the very least, as a latent quality of the medium. In that sense, it’s what I love about photography, and in particular, sequences of photographs in a book. However, despite how readily photographs lend themselves to these interesting complications, there still exists a tendency to think conventionally about how still images engage narrative, and that these implicit struggles with narrative convention are seen as a problem to overcome, rather than exploit. “The layering and folding of time” through a sequence of photographs can mimic the unconscious, which I think is a fascinating structure to work with. With Emmett, because of the age of the photographs, I thought there was a more direct line to building this kind of experience into the sequence, for the reasons you mentioned. (But it was important that those images not be treated as artifacts; that they were seen as transparent images that were alive, despite their age. There was a nostalgic element present in Emmett, but for the content, not the photographs themselves.) With Lago, it was harder for me to tease this out in the editing process. This may have had something to do with how quick the turnaround was from shooting to editing. It can be hard to see the images as puzzle pieces (rather than singular “favorites”) when the experience of making them is still fresh.
David: Interesting you use the word ‘transparent’. I was just rereading Vladimir Nabokov’s novella Transparent Things(1972). The opening pages describe the delicate balance we have when looking at the appearance of the world, slipping between remaining on its surface and somehow penetrating it for its resonances and associations. Nabokov doesn’t mention photography, but it’s clearly a medium that redoubles that oscillation – the evasive surface of the image, the surface of the things as depicted in the image, the surface of the things themselves, and their deeper implications. Your photographs, particularly in Lago seems to dramatize, or emphasize these little slippages between one register and another. Maybe it’s because they are so often images of quite complex surfaces.
Ron: I haven’t read that novella, but I will now. This is an aside, but Nabokov wrote Lolita (1955) in Ithaca, New York just a few blocks from where I was living when I was working on Lago. It’s amazing how many great people have come through that small town over the years. Alex Haley was born two houses down from my house… but I digress.
What you’re describing—these slippages between registers—is precisely what I like about photography. It’s not easy, but one can truly straddle the mysterious and the absolute with this medium. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always tried to avoid mannerism, but then one runs the risk of having the work taken as a photo essay or some other literal offering. This cuts the photographs off from more difficult reads. It’s been an ongoing challenge to find that place in a photograph or sequence of photographs that allows instability to occur, while still clearly describing a subject. I think this can be accomplished through a range of means, but typically resides in doling out just the right amount of information; enough to grab onto and ground you in the world, but not so much that you have a complete comprehension of what you’re looking at. If I understand you correctly, this is where the “complex surface” comes into play. Are there any particular images that come to mind as examples of what you’re describing?
David: I guess this will be different for each viewer, but for me the garage door with that gaping deep/flat void would be one. Another would the more intimate shot of the chain link fence and chicken wire. Both of these are photographs I slip through to some imaginary, illusionistic space… but slip so easily that it brings me back up to the surface. I remember once discussing this effect with Stephen Shore. He talked of wanting some of his images really exploit the idea of transparency, to give the illusion of three-dimensional space, but of course the more successful the illusion, the more it draws attention to itself, like a particularly good magic trick. I guess this is one of the central fascinations of the medium, and was so almost from its beginnings. A founding paradox that we can never quite move beyond, because every image energizes it in its own particular ways.
Ron: It’s hard to find that sweet spot right at the edge of immersion and surface. The photograph shouldn’t be doing such a good job at being a photograph that it has an awareness of itself, thereby creating awareness in the viewer. (Like, “wow, that’s amazing! How did s/he get that?!”) It’s a confounding paradox, like an unsolvable puzzle. But we keep trying, always circling around it and trying new strategies. I think this requires a certain amount of built-in, strategically latent imperfection in the image. This goes back to what we were talking about earlier regarding the shooting process and how that needs to be its own, discreet action. It’s really difficult to weave these imperceptible imperfections into an image when you’re intellectualizing about outcomes, like books or exhibitions or even narrative sequences.
David: And now we are here. Lago was published and immediately it was very warmly received. It’s a book that people return to, and a book for which there’s a lot of affection and admiration. What do you feel about it at this point? Do you look at it often? Has its significance for you changed in any ways?
Ron: It’s a book that still seems “new” to me. I don’t yet have a lot of distance from it. I do pick it up occasionally and I can look at it without feeling like I want to change things about it, so it seems fully resolved in that sense. As with anything that you labor over and think about for a long time, the end goal is really just to make this thing that you have in the back of your mind, and how it’s received is secondary to simply finishing the work. That being said, I’ve done things that weren’t so warmly received (or just plain ignored), and that’s not a great feeling. So, it’s been nice to have the double satisfaction of having made something that I feel good about and that an audience has found something in, too. I’ve always felt like I make work with an audience of about four people in mind (you know who you are), but with Lago it seemed like these esoteric things that I’m interested in started getting traction with a wider group of people. This is good for the ego, for sure, but more importantly it allows one to continue the conversation and make more things, whether they’re books or exhibitions, or whatever. Therein lies its current significance for me, I think. It sets things up for where I want to go from here.