Ron Jude is one of my new heroes. I am not above fawning or adulation when I find something that disrupts the usual tropes of my interests. Often these heroes are ones that I would not previously have explored or may have possibly even dismissed when looking at their work in haste. My compunction towards graphic “fast” images or images that have an extreme or obvious weight to them is one aspect of the incompetence I see in my own relationship with images. Perhaps I am getting older and perhaps images that take longer to percolate are becoming more relevant to me as I take more time with looking. That being said, very few “slow” photographs or bodies of work tend to hold my attention or the hunger for my eye and mind overall. I find Ron’s work, like Michael Schmidt’s “Lebensmittel” to be of a significant challenge to my previous modes of image consumption. I can’t immediately place what about the work sticks with me. It takes time, but the images somehow lodge themselves in my mind and usually come back to me long after viewing the work. This is the case with the work of Ron. I remember being affected by earlier images of his that I had seen and I began to really pay attention with his last book with MACK, “Lago”. After exploring that work then working backwards, I came to the conclusion that there was something amiss that functioned between the “fast” and “slow” intake of his images for me. I still cannot place the complete effect of his work on me, but it resonates, stays and informs my own system of thinking through photography and that is incredibly important to me even if I cannot succinctly point out the one single reason it accomplishes this.
Ron was nice enough to take time out to answer a few questions about his excellent new book “Nausea”. His answers, as to be expected are filled with insight, with detail and a great delineation of thoughtful examination of what I have termed the “sideways glance”.
Brad Feuerhelm: Nausea is an interesting topic as a word and an idea, but has largely, in linguistics, been co-opted certainly by existentialism, materialism and a philosophy of self that is governed by Jean-Paul Sartre, whose your body of work has put to interesting use reflecting on the public school system in America’s South. The qualifications of environment-learning environments and the parallax of knowledge systems being administered to youth are explored. I feel there is an uncanny parallel world happening in your images. Can you tell me what drove you to correlate the Sartre work to the institutionalization of learning?
Ron Jude: There were a number of reasons I decided to make pictures of the institutional architecture of public schools for this work, the simplest of which was that I wanted to look at something that a lot people have encountered and have some basic experience with. I liked the idea of moving through spaces that represent not only the premise of learning, but also its diametrical opposite—an amalgam of utter boredom and anxiety, brought on, to a large degree, by the spaces themselves.
In my mind, these pictures weren’t reflecting on the public school system per se, nor were they concerned with the particulars of schools in the south. My thinking at the time was that there was a ubiquitous sameness about these places. (The schools I attended in Idaho seemed aligned aesthetically and functionally with what I saw in Baton Rouge and Atlanta.) One of my motivations behind the somewhat mannered quality of these photographs was to diminish, in a clear, visual way, their documentary value. That being said, they are photographs, after all, and it’s hard to completely escape their connection to certain cultural realities.
Drawing reference to a renowned work of literature is probably not something I would recommend to younger artists. You run the risk of either having your work seem feeble and lightweight by comparison, or intellectually dubious through the forced connection. (You also have to assume the academically challenging responsibility of articulating the complexities of the thing to which you’ve tethered your work…) Regardless, it seemed important to me at the time to clearly establish how I was thinking about the things I was looking at, and what my intentions were for the use of photography.
By referencing Sartre’s Nausea, I hoped to echo Antoine Roquentin’s (Nausea’s protagonist) desire to write “Another kind of book,” one that rose above the historical articles he was accustomed to writing. I wanted to make another kind of photograph, one that moved beyond the literal and prosaic, yet didn’t abandon the essential, indexical qualities of the medium. I didn’t want to reduce what I could do with photographs to the equivalent of writing a term paper, engaging in the humanist, rational bent that runs deep in lens-based photography, yet I had no desire to make pictures for purely formal reasons, or abandon the camera and experiment in the darkroom. I was trying to visually articulate a particular way of seeing things and thinking about the world, one that recognized and drew from the documentary impulse, but denied any real documentary utility. I wanted to cut through to something essential, something fundamental about the things I was looking at. Through attempting to acknowledge simple Existence, I hoped to evoke the actual experience of inhabiting these spaces. So, the word “nausea” becomes relevant not just as a reference to Sartre’s book, but also to the spirit of how the word was used in the context of the book. The visceral jolt of raw sensation conjures Antoine’s fear of existence, which in turn triggers a feeling of nausea. I was trying to get to a similar place visually. Whether that’s even possible is debatable, but these pictures are what I came up with in the attempt.