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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review 12 Hz Photographs by Ron Jude Reviewed by Blake Andrews 12 Hz—the lowest sound threshold of human hearing—suggests imperceptible forces, from plate tectonics to the ocean tides, from cycles of growth and decay in the forest, to the incomprehensibility of geological spans of time.

12 Hz. By Ron Jude.
12 Hz
Photographs by Ron Jude

Mack Books, London, UK, 2020. In English. 128 pp., 9½x12¾".

For those who have followed Ron Jude’s career closely, his recent monograph 12 Hz (Mack, 2020) will come as a departure. For starters, it’s his first book of exclusively monochrome photos. At over a foot tall, it is printed at a scale that dwarfs any previous effort. Perhaps most importantly, 12 Hz —named for the lowest range of sound audible to humans— focuses on nature, avoiding people entirely. This comes after 9 previous books documenting the various artifacts of human culture. Even his early monograph Other Nature, the Jude book closest in spirit to 12 Hz, contains some traces of the built environment. Not so with 12 Hz. In this work he has broken clear of humanity entirely, settling instead in a primeval world of lava, caves, and water forms.

The shift in approach might be the result of recent changes in Jude’s life. In 2015 he uprooted from a long career in New York to resettle in Oregon. The next year his father passed away, followed by the disruptive election of Donald Trump. By the time he’d finished the work in progress, the 2017 monograph Nausea, Jude was at something of a crossroads. If he’d been a corporate executive, this period might be thought of as his mid-life crisis. But rather than buy a Corvette convertible, Jude embarked on his next photo project, this time with the conscious intention to avoid book form. He wanted to make pictures with a physical presence, large prints you could interact with in real life, not just reproductions on a page.

12 Hz. By Ron Jude.

The impulse toward grandeur led him initially into the local mountains and forests of his newly adopted home state, where he became entranced by Oregon’s bizarre volcanic forms. With its myriad lava tubes, basalt plugs, cinder cones, and active glaciers, the geography harkened back to the primordial epoch when the earth’s surface was just taking shape —an era long before humans, and well out of audible range. Eventually, his search took him to similar geologic features in Iceland, Hawaii, and New Mexico, where he found the same stark visual currents running through all.

The resulting photographs have the austere resilience of deep time cycles. Humans are nowhere to be found, and if present they would experience these landforms as completely inhospitable. There is nary a flat spot in sight, no place to rest a body or reader’s eye. One photo shows magma cooled into strange mounds. Another shows an icy moraine, with dirt and rock blending into a sort of dark natural graffiti. Seafoam dances above a chasm in another. Stalactites hang from cave interiors, mirroring gigantic mesas of volcanic tuft.

Paging through Jude’s photos is like watching a “How the earth formed” movie in science class. But this is a moodier, more mysterious version. It is halfway through the book before any sign of life appears, just a few twigs on the margins of a booming waterfall. Another photo seems to show moss, but it might just be mushrooming basalt. Once vegetation is finally untracked, in the book’s last section, it explodes into dense jungle plumage, an Edenic wilderness that serves as a literary counterpart to the earlier rock forms.

Jude’s printing style is muted, with dark gradations clustered toward the lower end of the tonal scale. Some are so dim that they seem to bring the viewer down into the earth, as if peering through the dim light of a cavern. The eyes need a moment to adjust before they are able to make out the image before them. The overall effect is rather somber, a reminder that humans weren’t invited to the party, and in fact, nature can get along just fine without us. There’s also a ruefulness in the knowledge that, no matter how large these pictures appear in a book, they fall short of their ideal exhibition scale.

12 Hz. By Ron Jude.

Jude has commented that he is not interested in mythologizing the landscape. Despite his intentions, this book seems to do just that. It may not feature the poster-friendly mountainscapes of Ansel Adams. But the geology of Jude’s photos is just as grand and sweeping and, dare I say, majestic? Jude’s Earth is a planet to be glorified and feared, and upheld, with an almost spiritual dimension, an effect enhanced by Mack’s production style. With cloth binding, tipped-in cover image, lush sweeping reproductions, and quietly dignified elegance, 12 Hz feels closer to Awoiska van der Molen than Vitreous China. Jude has left behind the wry social commentary of previous works, choosing instead a more rarified and refined direction. It’s a nice twist in the oeuvre from a photographer who consistently pushes himself into new territory. I’m tempted to say it might signal a broader new direction for Jude. But I suspect the next project, whatever it is, will also be a departure.

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12 Hz. By Ron Jude.
12 Hz. By Ron Jude.

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at