New Old School: Ron Jude On Creating a New Book from His Early Photographic Work
August 21, 2017
Ron Jude’s new book Nausea uses photos he took in the early 1990s when he first experimented with photography’s ability to communicate complex ideas without the aid of text.
When revisiting the work, Jude found that the ideas he was exploring then, such as how to move beyond a documentary approach when making photographs of the world, have continued to be important to his work.
Jude decided to work in public schools in part because he was interested in exploring how learning takes place in “mundane, banal environments,” he says.
He also thought using familiar, unremarkable locations would encourage viewers to look more closely at the images.
It was John Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea, that got photographer Ron Jude thinking about how pictures communicate with viewers. Jude borrows Sartre’s title for a new book of photographs, published recently by MACK. Jude created his Nausea from a series of images he made in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and in Atlanta, in 1991 and 1992, while he was pursuing his MFA and in the period just after he received his degree. At the time, he was dissatisfied with documentary photography, “with reporting on the world or the idea of coming up with a conclusion about a town or a place or people based on just taking pictures of things,” but he didn’t want to give up making pictures. Sartre’s book helped lead him in a new direction.
In Sartre’s novel the protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, is living in a port town while he works on a biography of a long-deceased French diplomat. Contemplating his surroundings makes him physically ill. He is having an existential crisis, trying to come to grips with what he sees as the pointlessness and randomness of life. “He would fixate on these objects and he would start to see past the essence of the thing, the physical qualities of a thing, and see the pure existence of an object,” Jude explains. “It was at that point that things almost vibrated and he felt this overwhelming feeling of nausea.” Jude became fascinated with the idea “that there is a fundamental distinction between the physical attributes of an object, and the simple fact that it exists,” he says. “It was something that I thought about a lot when I was looking at things with a camera, but it seemed kind of daunting to try to convey that visually.”
Photographing in public schools, Jude experimented with “really muddy colors, compressed values, shallow depth of field.” He wanted to communicate his ideas about what he was seeing through visual language rather than “just making a picture of a thing and then writing something about it that explains how you’re thinking about that thing,” he recalls. Jude says he chose to photograph public schools because they’re familiar to “a pretty large cross-section” of viewers. Photographing a subject that “doesn’t present anything all that interesting to look at on the surface,” he says, signals that the pictures are intended to do something more than document or estheticize what the viewer sees. “There’s nothing immediately seductive about the subject matter, so [viewers] have to dig a little deeper,” he explains. He was also interested in “the bigger idea of education” and how we “come to know things in these pretty mundane, banal environments.”
The photographs in Jude’s book show interior and exterior details at the public schools. His compositions home in on the schools’ institutional architecture, on signs of decay and disrepair and heavy use. In one image, we see the word “Anxiety” scrawled on a beam that appears to support a ceiling or overhang abutting a brick wall. The ceiling, mostly out of focus, fills Jude’s photograph, creating a sense of claustrophobia. In another picture a garden hose leaks water directly into a storm drain. A photograph of a red door that appears to have been painted over several times shows the door covered in grime, which has been smeared around as if someone were trying to get it open, or perhaps keep it closed. An image of a grassy knoll worn bald at the top reminded this viewer of the child’s game “King of the Hill.”
This is the first time Jude has published these photographs, and a majority of the images weren’t part of his exhibition of the series at The Photographers’ Gallery in 1992. When he revisited the work recently, he found that the concerns he had when he made them are still present in his work today. The book is retrospective in the sense that these photographs led to and informed his books emmet, Alpine Star, Lick Creek Line and Lago. But Nausea is also new in that it incorporates what he’s learned from his other projects, about bookmaking and sequencing, “about how to put together a string of images in a way that leads you through the work without being obvious.” Also, his 25 years of experience helped him “see the potential of images that I passed over for whatever reason the first time.”
While viewers may look at Jude’s Nausea today and think about public education and its problems, that wasn’t Jude’s reason for making the work. “This is not a documentary project about public education, it’s not useful in that way at all,” Jude says. Instead, “It’s more subconscious….It’s about creating a psychological space.” When he made the photographs in Nausea, “It was really that first moment where I understood that that was possible while still going into the world with a camera and making pictures of things.”