Volume 21, Number 2 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | MAY 23 - 29, 2008
John Ranard, 56, social-documentary photographer
By Andrew Ranard and Lincoln Anderson
John Ranard, an East Village photographer known for his work documenting boxing, Russia during the period of perestroika and AIDS in Russia, died of liver cancer at Mt. Sinai Hospital on Wed., May 14. He was 56.
Ranard collaborated with writer Joyce Carol Oates on the classic book “On Boxing,” which has remained in print since first being published in 1987, appearing under various imprints, most recently Harper Perennial. Ranard’s photographs on the behind-the-scenes world of boxing gave Oates’s text an unusual visual drama, with the images spread throughout the text.
Ranard and Oates shared the notion that boxing was true American theater. In his boxing photographs, he strived to capture the multilayered world of boxing, full of gladiatorial idols, sideline hangers-on, passionate aficionados and wishful amateurs.
Paradoxically, Ranard often said the passage that he liked most in Oates’s text was “Nor can I think of boxing…as a metaphor for something else. … Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing.” This sentiment was true of Ranard’s life, for it was a pugilistic struggle all uphill; he survived Hodgkin’s disease when in his 20s. But it was during this period that his doctors believe he contacted hepatitis C through blood transfusions, the knowledge of which he lived with his last 15 years, and which ultimately led to his liver cancer. In October of last year he underwent liver-transplant surgery, after which, emaciated, and 30 pounds underweight, he captured his condition in his final self-portraits.
Ranard worked primarily in black and white, and he found this medium apt for the stark contrasts of the boxing world, in which he explored themes of racism, religiosity and sexuality. The collaboration with Oates for “On Boxing” was, in fact, initiated by Ranard originally as a photo book, “The Brutal Aesthetic,” which comprised many more photographs than appeared in “On Boxing.” This book has not been published, though Ranard remained hopeful until the end that it would be.
In the 1990s, Ranard began intermittent travels to Russia to photograph the crumbling Soviet empire. Out of his work in Russia, he completed two independent documentary portfolios “Lost Heroes” and “The Prisoners,” the latter an inside look at the Russian prison system. During this period, he also began to photograph the subject of AIDS in Russia, publishing an essay with writing by Michael Specter in The New York Times. The photo essay won first place for Issue Reporting Story from the National Photographers’ Association in 1997. His work on AIDS in Russia was subsequently sponsored by the Soros Foundation Open Society, and presented and published in media campaigns throughout Russia by Médècins Sans Frontières and AIDS Foundation East\West.
Ranard’s Russian photographs appeared in Granta Magazine and the Ontario Review. His photos on AIDS appeared in The International Journal of Drug Policy. He also contributed to The Washington Post and The Village Voice. Ranard enjoyed working for the alternative press since it gave him free reign to experiment creatively.
Ranard started shooting for The Villager and Downtown Express in 2005. His subjects included nouveau burlesque on Avenue B, freegans foraging for food in dumpsters, performance artist Penny Arcade for an article on East Villagers battling hepatitis C, the “Chess Monster” of Tompkins Square, James Brown’s funeral at the Apollo Theater and the Madina Masjid mosque at 11th St. and First Ave.
When Community Media, Downtown Express’s parent company, launched Chelsea Now at the end of 2006, Ranard jumped at the opportunity to shoot the Chelsea gallery milieu, which he enjoyed. He regularly contributed photos to Chelsea Now in a series called “Gallery Scene.”
Q. Sakamaki, another top East Village photographer, said Ranard was one of the most talented lensmen he knew, but, unfortunately, didn’t get adequate recognition for his work.
“He’s a real, great photographer,” Sakamaki said. “He’s very talented especially his composition. If he was lucky, he could have been one of the best photographers in the world in the opinion of photographers.”
Sakamaki recalled how he and Ranard both documented the East Village during its turbulent era in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After things quieted down, Ranard went to Russia for several years while Sakamaki went abroad to various countries.
“After Tompkins Square Park finished, maybe people [sic] looking for somewhere else,” Sakamaki observed. He noted he’d just bumped into Ranard on Avenue A three weeks ago and told him that he included him in the acknowledgements for his upcoming photo book on Tompkins Square.
East Village activist John Penley said of Ranard, “He was very much the classic photojournalist. He would concentrate on one subject he didn’t just pick one story and then jump to another. He really dedicated his life to that. It wasn’t easy going to Russia and photographing all those drug addicts. He went into prisons, drug rehabs and hospitals. Probably it was pretty dangerous for him when he was over there with all that camera equipment. … He took the time. He also had a fascination for Russian women so that might have been part of it.”
Merry Esparza, a close friend of Ranard’s, said, “John was such a gentle, talented and unique human being a true artist and individualist, with a deep curiosity about life and compassion for people. He will be remembered by so many for his beautiful spirit, as well as for his rich legacy of work.”
Ranard’s photographs have been collected by the Brooklyn Museum, the University of Louisville Photographic Fine Art Archives, the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow and the Graham Nash Collection.
John Ranard was the son of Virginia A. Ranard and Donald L. Ranard, a Foreign Service officer in the State Department who later became a human rights advocate. John Ranard spent much of his childhood living abroad in Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Burma and Australia. He is survived by his sisters, Patricia Ranard of New York City and Amy Ranard of Connecticut; brothers, Don Ranard of Buenos Aires and Andrew Ranard of Tokyo; nephews, Matthew and Ian Phillips; and niece, Jessica Ranard.
An art show in honor of Ranard is being planned at A Gathering of the Tribes gallery in the East Village, probably for September.