Ron Jude‘s Lago came onto my radar some years ago. I’m not quite sure why I waited so long to pick up a copy, nor why I picked up a copy when I did (sometime during the pandemic-related glut of photobook purchasing in the lost year of 2020), but I did, and now it’s finally time to take a look at it.
Jude made the photographs for Lago between 2011 and 2014 in the California desert where he grew up. The publishers blurb says the book—its sequencing, the photographs themselves, etc.—is Jude’s attempt “…to reconcile the vagaries of memory (and the uncertainty of looking) with our need to make narrative sense of things.” A quotation from John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, included on the title page at the end of the book drives this home:
…I know it happened, and I have enough information about it to reconstruct the whole scene to my own satisfaction, but the person to whom it happened is somewhere so far off that I only know it’s me because I can see his face, and because I’m the one remembering.Darnielle, John. quoted in Ron Jude, Lago. Mack, 2015.
As someone who tried—with absolutely no success—to photograph the places I remember from my past, I’m sympathetic to the goal and sorta hope, or guess that Jude had more success or satisfaction with his work than I did. Reading around some, I came across a conversation between David Campany and Jude, where he describes what he tried to get out of it, and he does seem satisfied. “…I can look at it without feeling like I want to change things about it, so it seems fully resolved in that sense.” Sounds like a win, for sure, and if reception counts—the book was on a bunch of best of lists and received a ton of press—Lago was a largely complete success.
The interview is worth a read, for sure, as Jude goes into his project and method in great detail. While he was, sort of, interested in exploring his memory with the camera, there’s a recognition that the place is totally different now, and as a professional artist, he had a different, more conceptual and theory-grounded, aim that I had, more or less. At least he has more of an understanding of what photography does, what photographs can do, how they operate, the ways they push against and play off one another in a book, and the sorts of stories you can tell with pictures.
…with Lago I wanted to see how far away from discernible narrative I could get before the whole thing fell apart, to walk right up to that edge. It’s difficult because it has to have some kind of backbone otherwise it could just wander off into oblivion. But I wanted to find a way into an internal world through an external one, without giving in to mannered visual devices or sophomoric surrealism. It’s a pretty narrow representational gap to locate.Campany, David. “Conversation with Ron Jude.” retrieved from https://davidcampany.com/conversation-ron-jude/ October 25, 2021.
The book itself is a bit opaque at first (and fifth) glance. I came around to it after several viewings, and it’s worth taking the time to get to it, I think. There are landscapes and architectural details and sorta random pictures of dogs and discarded flotation devices and a hardcore gay porn magazine and chain link fences and a big hairy spider in a jar and on and on, pretty much what you’d expect from any rural area of the country, though you sorta need a desert to really make these sorts of pictures with this sort of light. There are no portraits, well, except for those of dogs and the gay porn, and in that respect Lago is quite different from Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX (unboxed but not yet live on YouTube or reviewed). To my inexperienced eyes, Lago looks quite like something that came out of the same pool as Halpern and many others. I’m not mad at it, and Jude’s work is, perhaps, somewhat more mysterious and… well, “difficult” is the wrong word, but it’s close enough.
One method of entry might be the sort of soundtrack that most reviews I’ve read mention only in passing—or put in a soundcloud bubble—as if they haven’t actually listened to it… Well, I bought the vinyl. In fact, I maybe bought the vinyl from a Shelter records sale thinking that I had the book, and only after receiving the record and hunting my stacks realizing that I didn’t, in fact, have the book, which I then had to buy since I already had the soundtrack…
Joshua Bonnetta’s field recording soundtrack adds an extra layer to the whole thing, with it’s near omnipresent wind and buzzing insects. An interview with a long-time resident occupies part of side A, “Everything That Was Ever Something,” and provides a sort of window into life near the Salton Sea. Some listeners might find the gentleman a bit off putting or foreign, something of a curio or throwback, but to me he just sounds like a friendly-enough guy who happens to live in the country. His story is a bit sad and life sounds a bit hard there in the California desert, much like the life in most other country parts of the Country. Overall, listening to the record, I can imagine walking around and making the photographs, so it’s worth a listen (if you have the book, anyway).
Really, I quite like and appreciate Lago, and there’s a reason it was on several best-of lists back in 2015. The whole idea of the book—now that understand it more thanks to the interview with Campany, though I enjoyed it prior to finding that—the images themselves and the pacing are all right up my alley, and I appreciate the obscurity and the fact that the soundtrack only complicates it all. I wish I could do Jude and Lago better justice than I have, and, really, wish I could think about pictures more like he does. Alas.
Overall, I rate Lago a solid 4.2 stars.
Lago is out of stock at Mack, but available for a mostly reasonable price new and used. Actually, to call $70 “reasonable” for a book belies just how calloused I’ve become… Sheesh. Photobooks are expensive these days, at least for the ones that people tend to talk about and that haven’t been endlessly reprinted. Oh well. My collection is as much a hedge against Roth-related market fluctuations as anything, and I have a few books that definitely will at least hold their value. Anyway. Lago is great and if you don’t have a copy, definitely hunt one down or go check out the images on Jude’s website. Give the soundtrack a listen too. The two really work together, I think, and I appreciate the layering and complicating that the aural bit adds.