Presiding photographer: Retired judge’s photographs line western Mass. courthouses


Staff Writer

Published: 06-16-2023 3:11 PM

Memories come flooding back to retired Judge David Ross as he strolls the halls, offices and rooms at Orange District Court. Following 24 years on the bench, the Amherst resident hung up his black robe for good on April 28.

But the stories he recounts aren’t about the literal trials and tribulations that unfolded in the any of the courtrooms. No, this brush with nostalgia comes from the more than 100 photographs on the walls at 1 Court Square. An avid photographer since his father turned him on to the hobby early in life, Ross was the man behind the lens for many of the pieces that adorn courthouses in western Massachusetts.

“In 2003, when we did the renovation (in Orange), we had no money for decorations… so I started hanging some small 8-by-10s, just to put something on the wall, and over time it’s grown,” he says. “I brought them in because I thought it just made the place a little more human. By having photographs in the public areas, people could maybe relax a little bit themselves and look at some things and enjoy them.”

Ross also has photographs hangings in the courthouses in Greenfield, Belchertown, Holyoke, Springfield, North Adams and Chicopee.

“I take photographs because I enjoy doing it. I enjoy working on them and I enjoy looking at them. So it gives me pleasure,” he says. “I get extra pleasure when other people also like them. So the ability to anonymously share them in different courthouses or on the covers of magazines has been fun. Everybody enjoys being complimented, so I guess there’s some of that in it, but mostly I do it because I enjoy it, I enjoy the challenge of making something I really think is beautiful, that captures a scene well.

“So what’s been especially fun for me is that the Massachusetts Bar Association has been using my photographs on the cover of their quarterly magazine (Massachusetts Law Review),” he adds. “So… 25 of the last 26 issues have featured my photographs of courthouses, and that’s been fun. Every once in a while I’ll get a call from a judge, ‘Can I have a copy of that for my wall?’”

Ross, 72, says he particularly enjoys photographing landscapes, flowers and people. Some of the photographs inside Orange District Court consist of Gate 26 at the Quabbin Reservoir, cows in Colrain, a tree outside the Orange courthouse, and New Salem Preserves & Heritage Cider, though Ross has also photographed the gorgeous Mossy Cave Trail in Utah and a lighthouse – with its reflection in a puddle – at Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia, Canada. His very early work – including a 1976 photograph of Boston Harbor – is in a behind-the-scenes room on the fourth floor.

“Any courthouse that wants them can have them,” the retired judge says.

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His photograph of the woods near the Hawley Reservoir emits an eerie but beautiful aura of a winter landscape that resembles that of Scandinavia. One taken in New Salem depicts a quintessential New England autumn, with orange leaves blanketing the ground.

Like father, like son

Ross says he learned the basics from his father, who was a dentist in Northampton but worked his way through the New York University College of Dentistry as a commercial photographer. Dr. Abel Ross passed on his passion to his three sons and the future Judge Ross honed his skills over time, eventually taking photos of his own children. But his hobby intensified about 20 years ago when he took a two-day class offered by Petersham photographer Patrick Zephyr, who he described as one of his two favorite photographers.

“We frequently go to the same locations. Some of my favorite places to photograph seem to be his favorite places to photograph,” Zephyr tells the Greenfield Recorder, adding his former student has a talented eye. “It’s clear that he’s passionate about what he’s doing.”

Zephyr jokes that he tends to not spend time in courthouses but says he is thrilled Ross has his work on display throughout western Massachusetts.

“I’m really happy for him,” he says.

Ross explains his hobby grew exponentially when photography became digitized, and he isn’t shy to say he uses Adobe Photoshop to enhance his work.

“The human eye and the camera do not see the same thing,” he says. “But the idea is to try to bring back what you actually saw, for the most part – maybe a little twist here or there. But the idea is to try to make it realistic so that people can experience it.”

Ross says he never goes anywhere without this trusty Nikon D850.

Journey to a judgeship

Ross’ road to the judge’s bench started at the University of Rochester, where he attended with the intention to be become a psychologist. He met his wife at the school, but his career path changed after working two summers at the Northampton State Hospital, a psychiatric institution.

“And I was appalled by what I saw there, how people were treated, the conditions that they were living in,” he says, adding that he was so offended that he testified before a Legislative committee assembled by Gov. Francis Sargent. “And that really got me interested in how government treats people.”

Ross then attended Boston University School of Law and was admitted to the bar in 1977. He worked for the New York Department of Investigation, a chartered agency created to investigate white collar corruption, until 1980, when he started working for a district attorney’s office in Massachusetts. In 1983 he went into private practice in Amherst before returning to the DA’s office in 1987. He remained there until he became a judge. He was sworn in Dec. 28, 1999, after being appointed to Chicopee District Court by Gov. Paul Cellucci, and he became first justice in Orange District Court in November 2002.

“I loved my time as judge,” Ross says. “I loved it because it gave me innumerable opportunities to help people, whether it be an issue of an abuse prevention order or whether it be encouraging people to the drug court or whether it be on criminal jury instructions to help other judges have things at their fingertips that they would need. A lot of it was just fun. I mean, there was tragedy involved as well, obviously, but from my perspective it was engaging, it was interesting and you felt like you were helping people and moving them along.”

He returned to Orange District Court for a drug court graduation in late May and he plans to come back later this month for another one.

“The drug court is a very emotional experience, because you’re dealing with people who really are at the bottom and they need help to get out,” he says. “So they have to work hard but you also have to work hard to get them there. And it’s wonderful to see the results.”

Ross officially retired in April of 2021 because the state Constitution requires judges to step down when they turn 70. However, he returned as a recall judge for two years. A retired judge can be brought back by a joint decision of his or her court’s chief justice, the state Supreme Judicial Court’s chief justice and a court administrator. His true final day was April 28, though he will continue working pro bono for a criminal proceedings committee.