LaToya Ruby Frazier, The Last Cruze

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by The Renaissance Society (here), documenting an exhibition held at the museum in 2019 (here). Hardcover, 12×9 inches, 392 pages, with 87 color plates and 124 halftone plates. Includes 5 discussions led by the artist with union leaders from UAW Local 1112; members of its Women’s Committee; David Harvey; Lynn Nottage; and Julia Reichert and Sherrod Brown. Also includes essays by Coco Fusco, Benjamin J. Young, curators Karsten Lund and Solveig Øvstebø, and Werner Lange, as well as a timeline tracking the history of unions in the US. Designed by David Khan-Giordano. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: During the four years of the Trump presidency, there was a lot of talk about bringing jobs back to America and supporting American workers. But for the roughly 4500 employees of the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, that talk didn’t turn into meaningful action when their lives were upended. After 54 years of continuous production, the plant was officially “unallocated” in November of 2018, and the last car produced there (a Chevrolet Cruze) rolled off the line in March of 2019.

Industrial America, including car manufacturing, has been going through a wrenching period of restructuring and re-invention in the past several decades, particularly coming out of the 2008 recession. Vertically-integrated behemoths like General Motors and General Electric have been forced to adapt to a new age of production, where faster, nimbler, and cheaper competitors (both at home and abroad) have disrupted once comfortable businesses, and new technologies and automation threaten to boldly transform everything they once took for granted. The 1990s era North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its recent renewal have further reorganized American modes of manufacturing, allowing companies to build factories in Mexico and Canada where they can take advantage of much cheaper labor. In the Internet age, all of these companies now want to be thought of as technology companies (like Apple and its iPhones built by third party manufacturers in China), which means pushing manufacturing to the background, and to wherever it can be done most efficiently.

When considered in this way, the closing of an auto plant seems almost abstract, a straightforward shifting of resources from one place to another. In the case of GM Lordstown, the plant had a contract to made the Chevrolet Cruze (a lower cost, compact sedan) through 2021, but with changing tastes pushing customers toward larger SUVs and trucks, and the Trump administration rolling back the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards (which had the effect of removing a requirement to build one energy-efficient compact car for every SUV/truck built), even though the car sold well, it was quickly moved to the strategic chopping block. For the workers at a plant like GM Lordstown, and for the towns and cities around the facility that had come to rely on the factory as a source of jobs, income, and tax revenue, such a shift of corporate priorities, and the resulting closure of the plant, was nothing short of a slow-moving, life altering disaster.

For LaToya Ruby Frazier, the Lordstown story hit a nerve. Frazier started out, some two decades ago now, sensitively photographing her family in Braddock, PA, and over the intervening years, she has slowly and methodically branched out to document the issues facing her community, and communities like hers in the Midwest. She chronicled the effort to save her local hospital, and then a few years later, spent time in Flint, MI, tracking the water crisis there, turning each effort into a long term project or an in-depth photographic essay, digging deeply and thoughtfully into the nested issues of economics, race, and class that run through people’s lives. As the years have piled up, working in a tradition of black-and-white social documentary photography and following in the footsteps of Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and others, she has quietly cemented her place as one of America’s most insightful photographers of the challenges being faced by American working families.

After the news about the Lordstown situation broke, Frazier started traveling down to the area on a regular basis (from her home in Chicago), and she ultimately spent roughly 9 months making photographs and talking with United Auto Workers union members and their families. The end result of that effort was a 2019 exhibition of photographs at The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago entitled The Last Cruze, and some months later, this accompanying catalog.

As a photobook, The Last Cruze is much more than your usual museum catalog – it is a densely stuffed object, its binding straining to hold all the included materials. As we might expect, it includes lush reproductions of the roughly 70 black and white photographs included in the show, each one paired with lengthy captions drawn from Frazier’s interviews with the various workers and their families. Those spreads, plus a selection of color images made by Kasey King inside the plant itself (where Frazier was never allowed to photograph), tally up at roughly 150 pages, and on their own, would have made a fine, more art-object kind of catalog. But The Last Cruze goes much, much further, to contain almost 250 more pages of supporting materials, including transcripts of multiple (and surprisingly content rich) interview events held during the exhibition, a timeline of union history in America (with a particular focus on the UAW), several in depth-essays, and an extensive range of striking installation shots of the exhibit. It even includes a checklist for how to organize a union in your own workplace, signaling that the book sees itself not only as a historical record of a specific exhibition, but as a kind of going forward reference tool and source book for those interested in the union movement (past and present) in America. Poring through all of this detail takes time, but what emerges from a close reading of the materials is a sophisticated view of the interconnected complexities facing American industrial workers, as well as a compassionate aggregate portrait of the people affected by the GM Lordstown shut down. This is a research-based photography catalog that undeniably aims to educate, and to inspire future advocacy.

Frazier’s photographs are taken from the vantage point of a supportive, concerned, and involved witness, whose role it is to document what is taking place. Each of Frazier’s images is paired with one or more interviews with the included subjects, where the people in the pictures are encouraged to speak in their own voices and tell their own stories. The balance between image and text is roughly equal, creating a condensed history that is as much oral as it is visual.

Many of Frazier’s photographs are staged in the intimacy of workers’ homes – in living rooms, near front doors, in driveways, and posed with spouses, children, and extended families. That Frazier was invited into these spaces says something about the level of trust she built with these people, and she has repaid that trust with photographs that feel organized but still comfortable. A range of emotions comes through on the faces of the GM Lordstown workers: pride and dignity in family, solidarity with others, anxiety about the future, worries about elderly parents and younger children, care for each other, and resignation toward lost dreams and failed expectations, among others. Multigenerational GM families stand together and tell stories of decades of service to the company, of retired parents and grandparents who worked in the very same plant, and of trusts betrayed, all with a shade of bittersweet loss. In the accompanying interviews, we hear about forced transfers to other GM plants far away, split families and romances, lost benefits and pensions, the building stresses of uncertainty and waiting, and the tragic fraying of the social fabric of the community. As the individual stories pile up, Frazier treats each with compassion and attention, but the heartbreaking mood never relents – this plant closure was devastating for these families in hundreds of different personal ways, and while they have tried to be resilient, the weariness undeniably shows on their faces.

Frazier finds moments of poignancy almost everywhere she looks, and her framing lets us see that pain without becoming intrusive. She captures John Davies, Jr. hugging his wife at his going away party after his forced transfer, his hollow look over her shoulder telling the story of his pain. Frazier finds Vickie Raymond introspectively sitting on her mother’s bed after her mother’s death, and makes a portrait of a handmade Last Cruze sign on her mother’s recliner, like a tribute. She is present when Kesha Scales wipes away her tears during a hug with a former co-worker. And she sees the blank expression of Jason Duncan as he sits at the kitchen table with his wife, her mother, and his daughter, contemplating their options. Every one of these and the other family stories is an unassuming tale of sacrifice and suffering, and Frazier is there to movingly take note.

A different set of emotions runs through Frazier’s photographs taken at the UAW union hall, where the work of the union takes place. Here, we see the strained faces of the union leaders, who are both putting on a brave face of support and solidarity while working tirelessly to find viable solutions to the current situation. Frazier shows us members of the Women’s Committee holding hands and praying together before a meeting, and long time employees behind typewriters, carefully recording details, attending monthly meetings, and offering assistance in the Transition Center. A few portraits made in the conference room project historical black-and-white union imagery across the faces of current members, linking past and present together in eerie combined layers, while other pictures document members outside on strike, and a gathering of workers and their families outside the union hall, holding signs and standing together in the parking circle. These and other photographs show us the day to day work of organizing and running a union during a crisis, and highlight how the families come together and support each other during times of necessary resistance. The bonds of the union are indeed strong, but are clearly put under intense stress during a plant closure.

Even amidst all this struggle, there is still an immense amount of loyalty and pride among the GM Lordstown workers, and Frazier’s photographs often feature this enduring commitment, even in the face of conflict and injustice. Two photographs of women’s hands tell the story elegantly: one shows Frances Turnage’s 3 gold service bracelets (signifying 10, 15, and 20 years of service), while the other shows Marilyn Moore’s hands, with her GM retirement gold ring on her index finger. Both sets of hands come from Black women who have endured decades of hard work, and their aging, weathered, caring hands are evidence of their dedication. Other photographs document long standing allegiance in other ways, by posing retired workers in their uniforms, or in those of their parents, the connection to GM going back generations, often far beyond the “30 and out” milestone to earn a pension.

A similar sense of ownership can be found in Frazier’s photographs of the actual last Cruze. As the final vehicle wended its way through the factory, workers at every station signed their names all over the car, affixed signs, draped flags, and took photos of the sad historic moment. Frazier finds the car out in the enormous finished car parking lot (surrounded by celebrants) and then follows it to a local dealership where it is detailed, and one of the salesmen climbs underneath to snap photos of all the signatures. The pride of workmanship and trust in quality is high, and as a symbol of hard won respect and allegiance, the modest white sedan was clearly difficult to let go for many.

While as a photobook, The Last Cruze is relatively conventional, with images hosted on the right sides of white spreads, flanked by the interview texts, and the various supporting materials appended at the back, as seen in the installation shots, The Last Cruze as an exhibition was altogether innovative and unexpected. Part church and part assembly line, it hosted the main body of photographs on tightly spaced orange walls tied together by overhead fluorescent lighting, the whole design meant to mimic the pacing of the factory. Above, the windowless vaulted niches of the room were filled with Frazier’s photographs of hands, the hushed dark spaces lit to feature these protective pictures of commitment and perseverance. Seen together, the look and feel of the exhibition matched the photographs and their message extremely well, mixing energy and solemnity in roughly equal measure.

While Frazier sensitively and inclusively bears witness to the struggles of many in this project, in the end, The Last Cruze is about more than amplifying any one individual story. Using photography as its mode of communication, it’s a thoughtful and immersive gathering of ideas, which asks us to consider where human labor should fit in our technological world, and how things like fairness, equality, and justice should be included in that discussion. Frazier isn’t afraid to make clear her support for the workers and the union movement more generally, but that doesn’t dilute the power and richness of her arguments. This is a sophisticated, deeply researched, and urgent set of evidence, which effectively re-centers the attention on the treatment of workers. What happened in Lordstown, OH, is a symbol for what is happening all over America, and The Last Cruze succeeds in making the specific more general by tapping into a vital vein of universal human emotion, including both hopes and fears. This is a heartbreaking story, but one that unfortunately feels representative of larger and more persistent truths. And while this is a superlative catalog, certainly worthy of admiration and accolades, its durable importance will come in its longer term ability to teach and inform, and to motivate and energize those who would work to support American workers with more than just easy words.

Collector’s POV: LaToya Ruby Frazier is presented by Gladstone Gallery in New York (here). Despite Frazier’s recent success, her work has still little secondary market presence or history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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