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01 October 2007

Richard Ross/John R. MacArthur Lecture, Part 1

The following is the first installment of a conversation between Richard Ross and John R. (Rick) MacArthur, regarding Ross's work and his book Architecture of Authority, published by Aperture this fall.

To read opening remarks made by Diana Edkins of Aperture Foundation, click here.

JRM: You can see why I had so much fun writing the essay for this. It wasn’t even necessary to write an essay; Rich is a good writer. His afterword is very good, and he describes the work intelligently and in an interesting way. But what this proves when you look at [the book] and, believe me, I don’t classify it in any way as a photojournalist… What we learned as police reporters, when I was a police reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, was that photographers are always better reporters—better journalists—than reporters are, and the way to get to the story, or to get to the heart of the matter, is to follow the photographer.

…I want to urge all of you to buy the book, because I’m not going to give away the secret of Richard’s father’s fascinating story [told by Ross in the afterword]. But what struck me when I looked at the pictures for the first time on the computer screen were the juxtapositions. I mean, [Ross] is a guy with an imagination which is above and beyond what you usually see in photography books. He’s making associations and connections that HE doesn’t even understand. And I saw it as my job to draw some of them out.

Photograph from Architecture Of Authority, published by Aperture, Fall 2007.

Now, maybe he’s going to tell you more about his background when we get a little more into the conversation, or his childhood, but for me it became kind of an investigative interview, and I really wanted to know more about what was motivating him to make these connections. Because to put a Montessori circle at the beginning of a book, with the little opening, for any parents who have individual children in circle time, in any school, and a death chamber, a lethal injection chamber at the end, is something from someone who’s doing something a little more interesting than the usual photography.

Photograph from Architecture Of Authority, published by Aperture, Fall 2007.

The other point I’d make is about what you see when you see these photographs on the screen. To show you how little I know about production and photography, even though I’ve been a publisher for twenty-three years… the stuff looks different on the printed page than it does on the screen. When the book finally came out, I was really jarred by some of the images in a way I wasn’t when I first saw them on the computer screen. Now, what I was looking at when I was writing were, I don’t know what they were… just computer printouts, color Xeroxes, or what?

RR: Some of them were prints; some of them were low-res [digital images].

JRM: Right… they weren’t as good as what you see in the book. Which is a tribute to Aperture, I suppose, and in any event I think the whole project is interesting on two levels. …First of all, Rich is an artist, not a photojournalist, and this is—I believe I quote Arthur Danto in the essay—for me disturbatory art. It’s upsetting, but it’s also working on an aesthetic level that’s very challenging and very interesting. So when I was trying to figure out what to say about it, I gave myself plenty of license. I drove off the road to hit Picasso just for the hell of it, as you’ll read, but I was trying not to turn it into a polemical essay, because obviously when you look at these pictures, you want to make political associations with our policy in Iraq, the invasion, and so forth. America becoming a torture state.

So it’s not easy to look at these pictures and [resist making] the obvious political associations. …Nancy Grubb, the editor of the book, was also very good in getting me to think about the aesthetic point of the book, which is different, I think, from the political point.

So what I wanted Richard to talk about was how he saw the balance between an aesthetic approach to architecture of authority, and genuine political outrage which, believe me, he feels. When we talked about it, it became quite evident. So can you talk a little about balancing it, if you even thought about balancing it?

RR: Part of it is… yes, it is political outrage, and it is a fascination with how we’re—I’m not going to go off on too much of a diatribe—how we’re sheep being led in a direction [that is] unbelievable to me, because I really feel like I grew up in a golden age, absolutely. Going to every play on Broadway for $2.60… my parents were very cultured. Very modest means, but we would go to a lot of museums and institutions. And then I look at what goes on today, and I see a very different world. Especially in terms of Congress. So I try to figure out how we got here.

And I did a talk in Claremont, where instead of being introduced, I asked them not to introduce me. And people are just milling around, and everybody was chatting, and I just stood there. And then, when I didn’t say anything after awhile, people were just quiet. I’m behind a lectern. And a couple of people were still talking, and then it stopped completely.

And then I introduced the whole concept of the authority of silence. In ways that you’re not accustomed to it. You have to become aware of it. So just as Rick and I are sitting up here, and you’re listening to us, sitting there in parallel rows that extend… there’s a certain authority here that you’ve ceded to us.

And we have ceded so much as a society and a culture. It’s unbelievable. And everything that goes on in terms of the perfect timing. People interned at Guantánamo, at trial now—the appellate court has said these people can face military tribunals because they’re now enemy combatants, but they’re something else now… it’s almost like I Spy, or Maxwell Smart, something super-secret that they’re now dubbed, and “Now we can try you [in a military tribunal].” How can you do this? Where is habeas corpus? How has this been allowed to continue?

So in a very simple way, I’m not sure if I’m flattered or insulted that Rick calls me an artist rather than a photojournalist. I’ve always aspired to be a photojournalist. But I feel there’s a limited amount of time in which you can do work that you look at and you say, “Line, form, texture, composition.” It just doesn’t make sense in the contemporary world. It has to be engaged for everybody at every level, to do something that’s more assertive in recapturing something.

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