A Conversation with Ron Jude: The Staccato Memory

By The ASX Team on December 29, 2015

“This work is about something else, something more abstract. The function of the desert and Salton Sea in Lago is more psychological than political. ” – Ron Jude

Ron Jude’s photographic practice is distinctly American in the tradition of the great photographer’s of place such as Richard Misrach, John Divola, Stephen Shore, and Joel Meyorwitz. His images teem with a lucidity and a sense of longing to describe place, cultural artifacts, and the uninhabited or recently derelict. I caught up with him to ruminate over his latest book “Lago” for MACK.

Brad Feuerhelm: A sense of space, a sense of dereliction, a sense of dry heat, what has brought you to “Lago”?

Ron Jude: I started poking around out in the desert in 2006, and went back in 2011 to begin working in earnest on what is now Lago. I made my first trips out there with the simple aim of looking at a landscape that I hadn’t seen since 1969. I wanted to see if anything seemed familiar, or if the place stirred up any latent memories. What I found was that my moments of recall had far less to do with narrative than any other place I’ve spent time in. The desert holds my earliest memories, and they’re more like flashes than stories. I think these flashes provide the framework for who I am, or at least how I engage the world. It’s a hostile landscape, and although I think my early years were generally happy ones, I also encountered death, physical trauma and solitude for the first time while living in the desert. It was a perfect formula for the existential perspective that’s been with me for as long as I can remember. I see the desert landscape as the physical embodiment of this perspective. At this point in my life, I see the desert as an indescribably beautiful place, but as a four year-old it was fraught with daily struggles, both physical and psychological.

BF: There is very little written about the crumbling potential of this place… the winds blow the pornography’s last shred of evidence to press against a rusting fence in a luminous, if somehow imposing light… and in another photograph… mountains of dis-used plastic shopping bags clamber up a corner of a similar fence looking like some uncanny Felix Gonzalez-Torres sculpture… the land covered in fragments of waste product… can you elaborate on your interest in these remnants?

RJ: I was trying to be careful about not over doing the “desert junk” photographs. I think if it’s not handled with some restraint, it’s a strategy that can end up turning into a cynical and pointless inventory. That being said, I’ve clearly got a fair amount of that sort of thing in Lago, but I’m hoping it can be seen more as anthropological evidence or puzzle pieces of some sort. I’m glad you mentioned Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Another reference point for me is Gabriel Orozco. I like the idea that photography can serve as a conduit for an unexpected experience with “found sculpture” and the potential for further meaning that comes with it. I’ve always loved Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled billboard piece from 1991 (a black and white photograph of an empty bed with 2 pillows and a sheet), and so many things by Orozco, like Breath on Piano (coincidentally, also from 1991), and Pinched Ball from 1993. I first saw all of this work during my formative years as an artist and it’s stayed with me.

from Lago @ Ron Jude

“These things you mention—the harsh light and the fishbone beaches—served as strange, almost violent embodiments of how difficult it is to come to terms with the gap that exists between the smooth edges of memory and the staccato nature of actual experience”. – Ron Jude

BF: Salton Sea is a very particular place…it is where the extremes of the nouveau riche of the 1950’s and 1960’s collide with the failure of a resort land pardoned of its fun… diverging into fishbone beaches bleached by harsh light and the swelling of flies along its last remaining architectural teeth…you spent time there in your youth…can you place in a few words the feeling of your sojourn back to this place and its current state?

RJ: My first trip back to Salton Sea wasn’t particularly loaded with nostalgia. However, there was a sense of loss, but not in the way you might think. It didn’t really have anything to do with the failed economy of something that was a bad idea in the first place. These things you mention—the harsh light and the fishbone beaches—served as strange, almost violent embodiments of how difficult it is to come to terms with the gap that exists between the smooth edges of memory and the staccato nature of actual experience.

Most of my memories of Salton Sea come from the few photos that my parents have of our trips out there. I see the place in my mind through those pictures. My actual memories are very sketchy, and are more sensory based—the heat, the smell, the sounds of outboard motors on the water. So, it’s not like I had a clear image in my mind of what this place was like that collided with what it is now. I can only imagine that it’s starkly different, due mainly to environmental changes that have occurred over the past fifty years. The saline content of the water has dramatically increased; the algae blooms occur with more frequency (hence, the massive tilapia die-offs and the wretched smell), and of course the resort potential has all but completely disappeared.

I feel it worth mentioning that although there may have been a contingent of nouveau riche going out there in the 50s and 60s, it was also very much a working-class destination. There was (is) a 14 mile-long state park with boat launches and campgrounds running along the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. This is where my family went. There are tales of the Rat Pack heading down there from Palm Springs, but neither of my parents recalls ever hanging out with Sammy or Frank.

BF: This place lies on the San Andreas fault-line and has a very specific feeling of impending doom … or perhaps… a post-apocalyptic feel… was this important for you to capture or was it just a very matter of fact experience?

RJ: I can’t say that I was necessarily working with an overriding sense of doom, but there was something unsettling about scratching around and sifting through the dirt out there. I think it had more to do with the past than the future, however. This feeling was located in the cracks and crevices, not in the fault line.

BF: In a small way, some of the work reminds me a little of Richard Misrach’s early “Desert Cantos” work… though different in aim… the metaphor of destruction… the hollowed out effect of where humans are somehow forced back by themselves before a reclamation could set in… it all seems to corrosively timely… are there any political or ecological salutations in this body of work… or is it again… simply a record?

RJ: I liked Misrach’s Salton Sea photographs back in the 80s when I was in college, and to some degree, an awareness of those images made me reluctant to even begin shooting out there. They so clearly defined what pictures of Salton Sea should look like and what they might mean. Richard Misrach did such a good job of visually articulating that particular landscape, that it’s hard to see anything else when you go out there. I knew that what I was looking for was something different, and that I had to find my way past what he and other terrific photographers, like Mark Ruwedel, had already established.

But I’m digressing from your question. The short answer is, no, there are no political or ecological salutations in this work. This work is about something else, something more abstract. The function of the desert and Salton Sea in Lago is more psychological than political. The longer answer recognizes the inescapable political aspect of any outward looking body of photographs. That stuff is there, it’s embedded in the subject, so I wouldn’t fault anybody for making that a part of the conversation, but ultimately that wasn’t a priority for me. If that’s all you’re looking for in the work, you’ll probably be disappointed.

That being said, Salton Sea presents a profoundly interesting and troubling ecological conundrum. Its history and its future are rife with problems that are tangled up in the politics of water consumption in the West. Every time I went out there I thought about how rich the potential was for an in-depth non-fiction piece. I’ve always thought Werner Herzog would handle it well. (I would love to see that happen.) There are a number of films floating around about Salton Sea, some of them better than others, but I don’t think the definitive piece has been made yet.

from Lago @ Ron Jude

from Lago @ Ron Jude

“Salton Sea presents a profoundly interesting and troubling ecological conundrum. Its history and its future are rife with problems that are tangled up in the politics of water consumption in the West”. – Ron Jude

BF: How do we encapsulate such traditionally dead spaces without the heavy use of direct metaphor between the landscape and the human capacity for understanding its finality?

RJ: This is the thing that I constantly struggle with and consumes most of my creative energy in both shooting and editing. How do you find that space with photography? If I understand you correctly, you’re talking about describing the indescribable; grappling with the question of essence vs. existence, and trying to do it with a visual medium (and in my case, without any supporting text). I think that’s the question that’s kept me at it for so long, and has prevented me from getting bored with photography. It always seems just out of reach, but I constantly feel like I’m getting closer.

But you’re right, as soon as you give in to metaphor, you’ve lost the game. Metaphor (and irony) should only bubble to the surface organically, and even then it’s a good idea to keep a big stick around to beat it down and keep it in check. So how do you navigate that space between the dumbly literal, and lofty, obvious metaphors? I don’t have a simple answer for this. To begin with you have to understand what those things are and how they manifest themselves in a photograph or sequence of photographs. From there, you have to know what you want (and what you don’t want) and have the discipline and restraint not to surrender to easily digested, known formulas for making and editing photographs. I had a phone conversation with Greg Halpern the other day and he said he felt like I was always denying the viewer a sense of full satisfaction. (I think he meant this as a compliment, or at least as a neutral observation.) If he’s right about this (and he probably is), I think this stubborn denial is part of my attempt to encapsulate these dead spaces. It’s not just about the picture that we see in front of us; it’s also about the picture that’s implied that we don’t get to see. It’s about not knowing. I think some people find this kind of experience with photographs frustrating, but for me it’s at the heart of what I love about this medium.


BF: I once saw images of you working with a field recording artist or technician… as someone interested in sound myself, some of the photographs allude to a sense of complimentary aural discourse… the sound of cut wire whipping from telephone poles that carry no messages, a vinyl record half-buried defiantly in the sand, the small oblique sound of a spider crossing an expanse of dirt and the small trench in the geological landscape that hints at tectonic shift and the vacuum of its movements tumbling gravel and rocks into its widening maw…is sound something important for you?

RJ: Lago is the first time I’ve ever engaged directly with sound, but I flirted with it indirectly in Lick Creek Line with the visually implied near-silence of the forest and the roar of rushing water in the opening prologue. This time I thought it would be interesting if an ambient “soundtrack” could be created to accompany the book, functioning almost in the same way Nick Muellner’s short story, No Such Place, worked in Lick Creek Line. I was thinking of something that would run parallel to the book, but never directly intersect it. I had originally planned to do some rudimentary field recordings myself, but the further I got into the idea, the better I wanted it to be, so I decided to ask sound artist and experimental film maker Joshua Bonnetta if he wanted to make something in response to the book. He was really excited by the idea and we spent an intense week in the desert last March making recordings and gathering raw material. He ended up composing two, roughly twenty-minute tracks that do an amazing job of echoing how the book works. I visited his studio a number of times while he was working on the arrangements, and I found the process to be remarkably similar to how I work on a book. He goes out into the field, gathers as much raw material as possible, and then brings it back to the studio and shapes it into something.

The two tracks, Everything that was Ever Something and What Lies in It, were recorded at many of the same sites where the photographs were made, as well as a number of other locations, mainly in the Coachella Valley. Some of the sounds were recorded with contact microphones placed directly on some of the objects in the photographs. The audio accompaniment far exceeded our expectations and it’s taken on a life of its own. Shelter Press in France will release the vinyl version of Lago in mid-January.




(All rights reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm and ASX. Images @ Ron Jude.)

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