JUDITH JOY ROSS

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People are thinking a lot about the current U.S. Government. I recall how I spent a year making “Portraits of the U.S. Congress 1986-87”. I did it basically because not unlike today, I couldn’t understand who they could possibly be. In case someone fresh wants to take a shot at photographing Congress (besides the most excellent press corps) here is a bit of what it was like for me.

In 1986-87, I dragged 45 lbs of equipment around the halls of the United States Congress in what amounted to a shopping cart. It was a half-assed thing to look at but the lightest means to transport my 8×10 camera equipment to the 15 minute appointments I had to make portraits of members of the House and Senate in their offices at the Capital.

Here is a page from my appointment book.

On alternate weeks, I made calls for appointments from my home phone in Pennsylvania some 220 miles away from D.C. using the invaluable Congressional telephone book.

Then I spent the next week in D.C. shooting. Here is a schedule of a week of shooting.

Here is a map of the entire Capital Hill.

And one of the Capital Building alone.

Finally the only hand drawn map I have remaining of the 4th floor of the House Rayburn Building and how to get around.

There was lots of walking from place to place. You used underground passageways to get from building to building. It was a miracle I could find my way and get there in time. I even learned which elevators took freight to carry me expeditiously. Looking at how I did things, I think it is very funny that I was able to pull this off. It should give anyone hope. Really it should. About anything.

When looking at these maps and schedules I found these notes I made about my appointment to photograph Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina when I was doing “Portraits of The United States Congress 1986-87”.

Notes on Senator Strom Thurmond Republican South Carolina:

His outer office had rich furnishings, french chairs and desks.

I sat opposite attractive and interested in me (mutual) older man.

We chatted about pressures of being in Washington – he only 3 days a year – me at that point 3 months left to go.

A lot of people came in – teenager boys gangly, goofy, lobotomized… hardly able to stand – walking like they had their legs tied together – so uncomfortable with the situation or themselves.

2 young girls — about 14 or 15, red dresses, thick (very), dark hair – smaller girl more sculptural of features like a greek sculpture in real life but a bit array with pouty lips just breaking into her womanliness. I think they sit very straight… their Dad is with them. Then a man who was on crutches or some major impairment of walking comes in and I move my seat for him and the girl, the smaller one in red, takes this seat.

The staff is chatting about the recent blizzard. I get a phone message from Senator Rockefelller’s office (Aside: I have no idea how they know where I am as there are no cell phones at this time. I use a typewriter and white out and a regular phone and zerox machine… it was all very old school for me.)

I use their phone to return the call — appointment cancelled. I am confused frightened and delighted to have the attention I feel the call brings upon me (Aside: No one actually cares but me and my ego.)

The Press Aide gets me into Thurmond’s office and it is like no other I’ve yet seen. Definitely Louis 14th furnishings. 20ft high ceilings 30 feet long 15 wide. Covered to ceiling with plaques etc. Strangest is that there are two desks, and in one further from me is Strom Thurmond who because of the dimensions of the room and of him, seems miles away.

He is barely seen above the desk yet feels very powerful. Fireplace on right, glowing family portraits – wife or daughter of exceptional beauty and sexual bloom. A Blond Prize. A surprising portrait. Surprised me even though I knew his wife had been, a young, beauty queen… she couldn’t be the one in the picture unless it was 10-15 years old… was it their daughter? (Aside: No pictures of his illegitimate black daughter who he conceived by the maid servant southern racist style!!!!!!!)

The Press Aide introduced me. I set up the camera. Egad! Simultaneously, they have decided to photograph all the horrid high school boys during my appointment! I folded up the tripod legs and stood precariously on the side with my camera almost being crushed when door from the hallway opened to let in the bored boys. I was stunned by the precision with which Thurmond arranged the boys around his body and his handshake. He was masterful. He stood where he always stands I assume, by the fucking flag. He in the middle. If there was more than one constituent, shaking hands was accomplished by crossing over his body’s front, a massive fucking front, (like a skater moves with a partner) all while telling the boys how to stand and where to look, smiling sharply while directing them. They seemed trapped by puberty, somewhere the needle was stuck. Maybe all their energies were concentrated in those newly energized reproductive organs. And there was no evidence that any could be diverted for any other purpose like thinking or responding to the outside world. I couldn’t blame them (Aside: I was stunned as well. How could I succeed in photographing this master of ceremonies. He had massive shoulders, a tiny shrunken — apple like head. He also had terrific charisma, though I loathed his political positions he was nearly overwhelming to me.)

The photographer of the boys did a grand job. Plastic staged shots. Flash smile Flash smile — Thurmond the director. Then Thurmond gave each of the boys a plastic key chain with his name and President Pro Tempore on it in a crappy cellophane wrapping. Only one boy seems disarmed-frightened during the hurried shooting. Thurmond didn’t have time or make any effort that I could see to really know anything about anyone — a publicity factory. (I met this same photographer by happenstance in Senator Roth’s office the next day… we had a nice chat about pain killers… he said that he works for “Close Up” a profit organization charging $850 plus flight costs for these portraits and he doesn’t believe Congress is aware of it.)

Anyway, I was appalled by how much time was taken by the commercial shooting of the kids… Then it was my turn and he (Thurmond) thought he could carry on a conversation with his staff whose desks also occupy the room.

I said I had to have him hold still.

First shot far away – thought it was nothing and was going to be nothing then moved closer. Terrified the whole thing was going very bad and almost at the same time it became incredible. I made five shots. At the last he began to smile. Done.

Then Strom Thurmond gave me a fucking key chain! He put his hand on my shoulder and drew me ever so
near.

(After all, I had just seen him on my terms which are like love or close to it.)

As he drew me near, I felt compelled to embrace him but held back. With the other hand, he gives me this fucking key chain and I can still hear the cellophane wrapper on it and I was so thrilled. What if I hadn’t gotten my key chain. What a letdown that would have been!

The thought also came – as he drew me near, was he going to fall over — he is 85 years old. Was he steadying himself?

SO MANY CONTRADICTIONS. HOW WONDERFUL!


Judith Joy Ross was born in Pennsylvania, in 1946. She lives and works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Since the early 1980s she has dedicated her work to the medium of photographic portraiture. Her books include CONTEMPORARIES (1995), PORTRAITS (1996), PORTRAITS OF THE HAZLETON PUBLIC SCHOOLS (2006) and PROTEST THE WAR (2007). Her photographs are included in numerous institutional collections, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Addison Gallery of American Art; Allentown Art Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum Folkwang, Essen; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Die Photographische Sammlung, Cologne; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; among others.

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