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An Afternoon With Photographer and Social Justice Campaigner Richard Ross in Santa Barbara

Updated: Jul 20, 2019

We recently took a drive up the shimmering California coastline to Santa Barbara to spend the afternoon with photographer Richard Ross.

Richard, well known, for his haunting treatment of light and space in photography that has spanned decades, the world over, from the hallowed halls of the Tate Modern to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has for years been ensconced in the warm enclave of this beach town.

The juxtaposition of his life's work and the town in which he lives and works (as long-tenured Professor of photography at the University of California at Santa Barbara), couldn't really be more startling. And as we got into conversation with Richard, so too couldn't the subject of his work and the warmth and empathy that he exudes.

Richard is immediately both engaging and captivating. Quickly, it becomes clear that the professional and personal investment in the subjects of his work has life and meaning beyond the photograph, but which circles back to create a sense of depth and emotion which resonates in his images.

Despite having a sought after body of work (Richard was also principal photographer for the Getty Conservation Institute) and having exhibited and published extensively throughout his career, for Richard it is the social importance of his work which now has overriding meaning.

We debated the importance of the 'authentic original' in the context of The Fine Art Ledger's facilitation of Limited Digital Editions and the Fine Art market's need for the 'authentic original' as the exclusive artifact. Uniqueness, in his mind now, needs to take a back seat to the ultimate purpose of art, and his work in particular, which is the serving of a higher social awareness and understanding. Empathy for his subjects, their experiences and addressing social evil and discontent exceeds the form of the medium through which the message is conveyed. He, and his works are that medium, and the message outweighs the need for uniqueness.

This could not be more apparent than in his current body of work, focusing on the treatment and experiences of juveniles incarcerated in the United States. In 'Juveniles in Justice' and 'Juvie Lifers', Richard brings to us in stark reality the experiences of juvenile offenders who have languished in the US federal and state prison system, some for life, for offenses stamped on them at ages hardly capable of appreciation for right and wrong.

Images of young teenagers in prison for unruly school behavior or sentenced to long prison terms for offenses where second chances are never given are presented in the cold reality of the austere architecture and interiors that imprison them. It is an underworld ignored or unknown to the people who mete out sentences and a justice system which turns a blind eye, perpetuating a cycle of violence and death for the juveniles caught up in it who already have little chance of survival in the communities that produce them.

Richard submerges into this reality, visiting prisons across the country (now more than a thousand visits), engaging with his subjects, delivering their stories and campaigning for awareness of this harsh underbelly of American society. The emotional toll is palpable just in discussion with Richard, and his images ooze the intensity of his interactions with inmates, creating a richness, which as Richard underscores, relegates the importance of the 'authentic artifact' in his work.

Austere and stark interiors and structures appear to be a common theme in Richard's work. There almost seems a sense of looking into structures or spaces devoid of the veneer of warmth that gives us a sense of separateness from the steely-cold reality of the harshness of a lost, forgotten or un-cared for life. It rips out the creature-comforts that we instill in our lives through the materiality, self-importance and energy we create to separate ourselves from our own existential angst.

His series, 'Waiting For The End Of The World' and 'Museology', like his juveniles series, expertly employ his use of light and space to express this unfiltered cold, rusted, and brittle reality, here, not in prisons, but in the form of forgotten fall-out structures and corners of museums; a world away from the curated shopping malls, suburbs and art fair circuits we enshrine as illusions of our immortality.

So, it was with this that we left sunny Santa Barbara, and headed back to our creature-comforted Los Angeles, comforted , at least, with the awareness of being fortunate to exist in the veneered world of sleepy beach towns and silver-screened meccas, and knowing that there remain artists here whose purpose remains unfiltered, seeking to wake us up to realities and people our veneered worlds would prefer to forget.

For more of Richard Ross and his work, and to support his Juvenile Justice campaign, please visit and

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