As our focus on women behind the lens continues in recognition of Women’s History month I am sad to share the passing of one of my classmates, Judy Gelles. Judy was one of the “older students” with an abundance of talent, asking questions and making work that as undergraduates we were unprepared for in 1980. Unfortunately the rest of the world was equally slow to warm to her work and it’s message. However she persisted and the message did come through eventually. Through her often witty and personal observations she chipped away at prevailing stereotypes and laid bare the less glamorous realities of housewife and mother in the modern age. Her work remains and has undoubtably been influential in starting conversations and changing perceptions of domestic bliss and women’s rolls in general.
Posted here is brief overview and sampling of work compiled by Aline Smithson over at LenScratch, a publication I recommend checking out regularly for updates on contemporary photography. I encourage you to spend a little time viewing Judy’s work and hope you will be inspired.
RI Center for Photographic Arts
I was dismayed to hear that the remarkable Judy Gelles passed away recently. She had a profound sense of humanity, combined with wonderful humor, and unique way of looking at the world, especially her own life and family. In fact, she was a truth teller. Judy came onto my radar around 2008 when I was writing a lot about photographers who focus work on their families. She told me that she had made work in the 1980’s that had been dismissed by curators and she was thrilled that projects created about the people under our own roof were being recognized. I wrote about her work three times and was always happy to promote her wonderful projects. She will be missed but we are so lucky to have her rich body of work to continue to inspire and delight us. Her son David Gelles recently wrote about the difficulty of planning her funeral in the time of Covid19 for CNN.
Judy received her MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design and her Masters in Counseling from the University of Miami. Her work is in major collections including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. She has had residencies at the MacDowell Colony, the Visual Studies Workshop, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts. In 2009,Critical Mass listed her as one of the top 50 photographers in the US. Her work has been featured in Ms. Magazine; Vision Magazine, Beijing, China; Camerawork; New Art Examiner; Artweek and Photography Now.
Awhile back, I asked Judy to reflect on her career:
Documenting the struggles of a woman and young mother were important to me. The “Family Portrait” series, created between 1977 and 1982 explored the cultural assumptions about Motherhood and Happy Families during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. When I began photographing in 1977, I had delusions of creating smiling, beautiful images of my two sons. But I quickly discovered that the true view of home life was very different than what family photo albums tend to reveal. My goal with the “Family Portrait” series was to break through the veneer of the Happy Family and the Content Mother and to expose the hidden and mundane events of family life: 5:00 AM feedings; toilet training; dirty dishes; messy rooms and messy relationships. To keep track of what was going on, I kept a daily journal. I soon began writing short autobiographical stories directly onto the photograph. These photographs were microcosmic of the Feminist reaction against the charade of the idyllic home life. No gallery or museum was interested in this work at the time.
Judy garnered a lot of attention and recognition for the 4th Grade Project, interviewing children from around the world about their lives.
I wanted to record mundane and hidden events of family life that we don’t see in the typical family album — 5:00am feedings, toilet training, babysitters, dirty dishes, messy rooms, messy relationships…these ordinary daily events became those moments that I chose to record.
Rest in Peace Judy. Thank you for making the world a better place.
© 2007 – 2019 LENSCRATCH // ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reposted with permission.