Thursday, June 27, 2019

Q & A with Ron Jude

Photo by Jean Andre Antoine
Ron Jude is a photographer and teacher based in Eugene, OR.

BA: Congrats on the recent Guggenheim. Can you briefly describe the moment you found out you'd won? How were you notified? What were you doing? What was your reaction? Was the award a surprise? Was there a financial component?

RJ: I was preparing for a class and I received an email from the Guggenheim Foundation minutes before the start of a lecture. I was thrilled to say the least, so I was a couple of minutes late for class because I had to call Danielle (my wife) and let her know. Getting the award was indeed a surprise, although of course I was hopeful. The application is completed months before the announcement, so you sort of have to forget about it while they work through the selection process. Yes, there is a financial component. Each recipient is awarded an unrestricted grant to be used in pursuit of the proposed project. This can mean anything from taking time off work, to covering production costs or travel, or a mix of all three of these things.

What are your plans for the grant? 

The grant associated with the fellowship will allow me to take a portion of the year off from teaching. It's not a sabbatical leave, as I'll be paying the university for the time off. My proposal for the Guggenheim was to expand the breadth of subject matter for 12 Hz, a body of work I've been chipping away at since 2017. My itinerary is still being pieced together, but I'll be traveling to Iceland in the early fall and Patagonia in the spring. Depending on the budget, I may also go to northeastern Australia. The idea behind these trips is that I'll be looking at things that aren't readily available in Oregon. 

from the series Other Nature

Of the other 2019 winners, pick a favorite and describe why you like their work.

I’ve always admired Cathy Opie’s work. I don’t necessarily love all of it, but what I respect is that she is constantly experimenting and, although she has a great career, she doesn’t churn out work in a career-type fashion. For me, that’s what being an artist is all about—risking failure by consistently mixing things up. From studio portraits, to platinum prints of freeway overpasses, to surfers, I’m always surprised by her work. Ultimately that’s what I want out of art—to be surprised by being shown something I didn’t already know I liked.

You've been in Eugene a few years now. What are your general impressions so far?

I’m utterly in love with Oregon and Eugene. It’s the first place I’ve lived in my adult life that truly feels like home. Danielle and I have a ten-year-old son, and Eugene so far has been a great place to raise him. We moved here from Upstate New York as he was entering the first grade and he acclimated right away. Some people lament the small size of Eugene, but it’s actually bigger than the last town we lived in (Ithaca, NY), and larger cities, like Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco are pretty easy to access when we need professional or cultural opportunities that Eugene doesn’t yet offer. I like being able to get just about anywhere in town in ten minutes! 

from the series Lago

What about Oregon?

I’ll state the obvious by saying that Oregon is a really amazing place. Between the coast, the high desert and the Cascade Range, we’re kept pretty busy on the weekends just getting out into the landscape. I’ve also heard people lament the weather here, but I think it’s amazing. Sure, it’s not Los Angeles, but what is and who cares? The rainy winters and the warm, dry summers are pretty much perfect. (It sounds like I’m writing a travel ad for the state, but it’s true.)

What is your sense of Eugene's photo community?

To be honest, I still haven’t fully engaged the local arts and photo community. There are some great people here in town, such as yourself and Thom Sempere (among others), and Shawn Records, Dru Donovan and Joel Fisher (among others) in Portland, but most of my professional activity happens in other places. This isn’t out of arrogance, it’s simply due to the fact that when I got here in 2015 my career, out of necessity, wasn’t anchored to where I lived. The exhibition and publishing activities that I’ve been engaged in for the past ten years require me to get on airplanes in order to find the audience and funding required to get the job done. (I’m on an airplane right now, as I type this.) Between these things, my full-time teaching job at UO, and being a parent, there aren’t many hours left in the day. All of that being said, I’m slowly trying to find my way into this community. There’s some great work being done here with a lot of enthusiasm, and I hope to be a part of that in the years to come.

from the series emmett

What do you think of Oregon's possibilities as a photo subject? Is it the focus of any of your photo projects? 

A peculiar thing happened when I moved to Oregon—I started staying home to make work. When I lived in New York, I was making work in places like the California desert and the mountains of Central Idaho. The first component of 12 Hz (my current project) consists of 19 large-scale black and white images of lava tubes, tidal currents, river water and welded tuff formations: pictures describing the raw materials of the planet, those that make organic life possible. These are the photographs that I submitted as a portfolio for the Guggenheim selection committee’s consideration. The photographs in this component were all made here in the state of Oregon, from the high lava plains in the Deschutes National Forest to the gorges in the Cascades, and the sea caves and tide pools near Cape Perpetua. My entire way of looking at things shifted when I moved here. The move, along with some other major life events, sent me off in a new direction.

How have you shaped the direction of the U of O photo program since you've been there? What are your plans for its future?

I certainly didn’t have plans to come into UO and bulldoze everything to enact my new vision of things. Dan Powell and Terri Warpinski spent decades creating a terrific program and what I hope to do is simply build on what they’ve already accomplished. I’ve made a few changes here and there, such as the implementation of the Photobook class and changing the Large Format Photography class to include color film processing and a digital component, but I tend to work slowly, allowing things to evolve organically. For instance, Colleen Choquette-Raphael, one of our long-term Career Instructors, has been teaching a couple of classes for years that I would be foolish to change or scuttle. I’m at the end of my fourth year at UO, and I’m really just now getting a sense of what’s here, what works, what doesn’t, and how to move forward in a meaningful way.

from the series 12 Hz

Tell me about your pancakes/photobook/music posts on Instagram. How do you choose the material? Is it just random? Or is there some connection between the music and the books? And maybe a connection to that day's pancakes?

Although I actively engage social media, I have no strategies, no intended outcomes, and I don’t take any of it all that seriously. I’m just as likely to post a picture of a pancake or my kid or a quote from a book I’m reading as I am to use it as a platform to promote my career. I’m fully invested in the idea of context as an important conveyor of meaning for photographs, and anything seen on Instagram lacks the usual strict context that I provide my images in an exhibition or a book. Yes, Instagram itself is a context, but I don’t think all that hard about it. As far as the music/photobook combos go, when I post those pairings they are literally things that I happen to be listening to or looking at that day. Sometimes the pairing seems intentional and makes sense (like John Gossage and Tom Waits), but just as often it’s arbitrary whim. As far as the pancakes go, I’m just honoring my mom’s 35-year-old sourdough starter by showing the pancakes I make with it. Her starter is beginning to spread around the region—Shawn Records uses it to make his weekly biscuits, and I’ve got a couple of grad students and colleagues who’ve recently acquired some. (You want some?) It’s my mom’s legacy.

from the series Nausea

What makes a good photo? A good song? A good life?

There’s probably a single clever answer for all three of those somewhat unanswerable questions, but I’ve been up since 3:30 am and my brain can’t get to it. A good photograph, as I’ve mentioned, often relies on some sort of compelling context (although at the moment I’m attempting to do just the opposite). A good song should measure around 20 Hz on the low-end and be at least seven minutes long. And a good life is one that happily acknowledges the inevitability of change.

(A condensed version of this interview is available here.)