Looking Back

Judith Joy Ross

March 6, 2017

©Robert Adams, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

We asked Judith Joy Ross to tell us about a picture that means something to her, and why. Ross’s series Portraits of the United States Congress, 1986-1987 is on view at Deborah Bell Photographs through April 29. 

I want to be clear that although I have been a woman for 70 years, I have not automatically been attracted to babies and not ever to the idea of having a baby. Children, I like a great deal, but not babies. I mean, I may see some random baby smiling or asleep – that’s fine – but any moment she will scrunch up her little face and start crying or screaming, or maybe throwing up. Who needs this?

All of this to introduce the picture I look at every day and would not live without: a picture that clearly contains a mother and a baby.

Robert Adams gave me this picture back in 1985, when I was going through a rough patch. It is from his 1983 project Our Lives and Our Children: Photographs Taken Near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Being able to see this picture dozens of times a day for over 30 years has saved me from myself over and over.

You see, for many years I identified as the baby being held by the mother. I constantly need comforting and feel reassurance every time I look at it. Whatever there was in my day that wasn’t going so well, there in the picture I was safe as that baby being cared for by the woman, whose body, shaped like the prow of a ship, moved through that concrete wasteland, a single tree attaching itself to her as a leafless crown.

Thirty years of watching this woman carry her child through this inane shopping mall with unending determination has transformed me. Today, my compass reset, I am strong enough to see myself also as the woman loving the child. She knows what is of most value, and every time I see her, I do too.