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New Book About a Fur Trapper Tests the Boundaries of Documentary Photography

By Conor Risch


Lick Creek Line by Ron Jude
© Ron Jude
In Lick Creek Line, Ron Jude melds images of a fur trapper working his trap line with photos of a nearby resort community. To see more images from the book, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Ron Jude’s new book Lick Creek Line is ostensibly a story about a fur trapper in Central Idaho. But underlying his photographs, which follow the man as he checks his trap lines in a wild area being developed as a resort community, are questions and ideas about what can be learned or known about a person or place through documentary photographs.

Part of what drew Jude to the trapper was the realization that, although he was acquainted with the man personally and grew up in the area, he didn’t really know a thing about him. “It’s a pretty loaded subject, a pretty volatile subject that I was very close to, yet has nothing to do with my reality,” Jude explains. “I decided it would be an interesting idea to go out and photograph while he did this thing that I personally don’t understand at all.”

Jude, who now lives in upstate New York, where he is a professor of photography at Ithaca College, made multiple trips over the course of a couple of years to photograph the trapper. He approached the subject openly, without defining what he wanted to show. “I went in to photograph it without any sort of agenda,” Jude says. “It was just a curiosity about a subject, taking the pictures that I had the impulse to take, and then I have to trust that when I flip the switch to my editing/sequencing mode that I’ll be able to construct something meaningful from that raw material.”

He did know, however, that he wanted to “have this counter-position of the resort community … I wanted to use those [photographs] as little punctuation marks in the narrative that draw out this idea of the multiple narratives that can be found in a single place. It’s really just a matter of where you choose to look.”

Images of the man walking snowy or muddy wooded trails, and baiting and checking traps for snared marten, are interrupted by photographs of a ski lift or the interior of a luxurious home, where a fur blanket rests on an ottoman or a moose head adorns a wall. Readers see small, humble cabins in the woods, stands of pine trees, an ice-covered lake and a weathered map.

Several of the images are harsh. In one photograph a marten bares its teeth aggressively and the reader wonders if it’s snared or free. Another image shows a hatchet and knife, flecked with blood, sitting atop a tree trunk. In a close-up, the trapper carries a skinned marten and a fish in one hand.

“It’s a difficult subject to look at and to think about,” Jude admits. “Yet at the same time I didn’t want to create illustrations for an anti-trapping campaign; it’s not meant to be argumentative in that way.”

On the contrary, Jude is interested in the idea that moral critique is “murky, and it depends on what your perspective is and who you are and where you live and what people around you think,” he explains. “It does become a little culturally arbitrary. There are clearly things—murder, for instance—that most people agree on, but it starts to get a little muddy when you get into isolated activities.”

The coexisting realities of the trapper and the luxury resort community allude to this idea. “[The resort community] is just as reprehensible, depending on your perspective,” Jude suggests. “It’s a lot nicer to look at, but there are much larger natural resource issues at stake.”

Certainly it’s interesting to consider the encroachment of the resort on the landscape as a modern iteration of the threat represented by the seemingly barbaric and atavistic act of trapping.

Lick Creek Line is the third in a series of books that draw on Jude’s upbringing in Central Idaho. In each he creates layered narratives by sequencing photographs in ways that plumb the gray area between traditional documentary photography and fiction.

“We look at photographs and expect them to tell us something very concrete about the world,” Jude says. “But really a still image is cut loose from any kind of broader narrative structure, and it doesn’t deliver on the broader context of where the image was made and how it was made, so we get pulled into this little micronarrative within the picture that may or may not have anything to do with what was actually happening at the time the photograph was made.”

In creating this and his other books, Jude has attempted to find a balance between telling a story about a person or place, and exploring abstract ideas—some of them about the nature of photography itself.

“On the one hand I don’t want [this] to be a TIME/LIFE photo essay about a day in the life of a fur trapper—I feel like I have a lot more to offer through my photographs than that,” Jude explains. “On the other hand you don’t want to make something so totally esoteric in terms of its abstract ideas that there are no access points … I’m truly hoping that [Lick Creek Line] has multiple access points through the subject matter, but at the same time the more specialized [fine-art photography] audience will get some of the more difficult ideas that are in there too, about narrative and about knowledge and all of those things that are important to me.”

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