How Ross Mantle first became interested in documentary photography is a familiar story. During his teenage years, while he was still in high school in Pittsburgh, he simply acquired a camera and began taking pictures of his friends, in this case, on their BMXs. “We would end up all over the city and go on road trips across the country, so I photographed a lot of things and places around where we found ourselves riding bikes more than BMX itself,” he recalls. “From there, I decided to study documentary photography in college and have since navigated a meandering practice that never fully breaks from my early interests working with photography as an engagement with the world and a form of questioning,” he continues.
Having studied in Ohio, before spending four years in Brooklyn and returning to Pittsburgh five years ago, Ross’ practice is a cyclical one. Divided between self-initiated work, commissioned projects for editorial and commercial clients (including The New York Times, Google Design, Rolling Stone and Bloomberg Businessweek) and teaching photography at Carnegie Mellon, each facet of his work informs the other.
Ross tells us: “I try to allow other aspects of my practice and interests to come into whatever I’m working on. New experiences that happen on commissions will open new ideas in my personal projects, or what I’m working on with students will help me to understand my own work in a different way. I’ve tried to develop a practice and lifestyle in which everything I do comes back into my work.” In turn, Ross’ portfolio is a fluid one, with no clear distinction between these kinds of works and, instead, a cohesive body of work which clearly belongs to him.
Creating this coherency is a grounding in the traditions – both process-wise and aesthetically – in documentary photography. “My aesthetic changes and shifts slightly between projects and concepts but I think it can be generally characterised as dry and quiet, thoughtful, maybe funny but that’s dependent on your sense of humour — alternately it could be melancholy if your sense of humour doesn’t match,” Ross remarks. “A friend recently described a project of mine as sly. This was a new description that I thought fit well.”
A current favourite body of work for Ross is titled Misplaced Fortunes. It’s one which typifies his practice as it falls somewhere between personal and commissioned, and was the result of a prolonged period of thinking and working around a single concept. “It’s a sprawling narrative about literal and metaphoric treasure hunting," Ross tells us. "It connects three centuries of history, legends and lies around a missing fortune, America’s colonialist ambitions, Manifest Destiny and an unquestioned obsession with progress. I conducted a lot of research and brought my own interests into working on this project over the last six or seven years, but experiences from commissioned projects played a role in how it developed – specifically a multi-year project in St. Louis that had me thinking about monumentality, sculpture, and public engagement with art across long periods of time.”
The images in Misplaced Fortunes are as ambiguous as they sound, inciting in the viewer a sense of longing for a revelation or a discovery. The ideas and themes present within the series also exist in Ross’ other work. “I was commissioned last year by The New York Times to work on a project looking back on the decade since the Great Recession,” he explains. “One piece of this was a story about North Las Vegas, NV, the epicentre of the housing crisis. I finished up university at the start of the recession and a lot of my work has been shaped in subtle and overt ways by that event. This project felt like an extension of my own work in many ways.”
Whatever the topic, however, Ross has an ability to break down complicated narratives into visual form – a key skill for a good editorial and documentary photographer. Through his works, which are often accompanied by texts, sociological issues – or just downright fascinating stories – become fathomable or, as he mentioned, even a little bit funny. Check out his series Can you spare an umbrella? to see what we mean.
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