LaToya Ruby Frazier, The Notion of Family

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Aperture (here). Hardcover in brown cloth binding (9 ½ x 10 ¾ inches), 156 pages, with 100 duotones, 32 color video stills, and 1 black and white tip-in. Includes essays by Dennis C. Dickerson and Laura Wexler and an interview by Dawoud Bey. $60. The book is also available in a limited edition box set (here), which includes a gelatin silver print. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In Frazier’s first book, winner of an ICP Infinity Award, she shines an unsparing light on both herself and Braddock, PA, the rust-belt valley town, not far from Pittsburgh, where she grew up during the 1990s. As she is an African-American woman, raised by women, and as Braddock has yet to recover from its steel plant closings in the 1970s, this is also a study of race, family dynamics, poverty, and the hollowing out of the working class in the U.S.

From the evidence presented here, Frazier survived a brutal economic and psychological upbringing and has triumphed (she was a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow) mainly on the strength of matriarchal supports. Her grandmother and mother are the book’s main characters other than the photographer. The few portraits of men here (one of her grandfather having his buttocks wiped; the back of someone who may be her brother in his Army uniform; a few portraits of her mother’s disaffected boyfriend) are not flattering.

Then again, no one and no thing here is presented in a warm, glowing light. Frazier’s monochrome palette is not elegantly noirish or retro, but serves to accent her bleak feelings about a place that has been drained of color. It is a testament to artistic honesty that neither of the two older women, both of whom were central to her survival, escapes criticism. Frazier’s grandmother collects dolls in lieu of more emotional connection (“Grandma Ruby internalized the idea that Black women aren’t supposed to cry”) and her mother seems not at all positive about her daughter’s career or of being the subject of so many scalding portraits. While Frazier has escaped the cultural deprivations of this urban sink hole, having taught at Yale and the Art Institute of Chicago and earned a fellowship of the American Academy in Berlin, she successfully manages to withhold judgment about its shortcomings—no mean feat.

Bluntly confessional and deliberately unfussy, Frazier does not try to seduce viewers with either her pictures or words. Instead, the aesthetic strategy is one of direct address. Her mother stares from the back cover, not with self-pitying or hostile intent but with an implacable presence. Her unsmiling visage and strong body are formidable, and the contest of wills between the duo keeps the viewer on edge. Who will gain the upper hand?

Frazier’s photographs eschew the suavity found in Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, or most other projects about the poor and disenfranchised. Shot in medium-format, the pictures are often middle-distance as well. There are few expressionist close-ups or wide-angles, in the style favored by Eugene Richards and Bruce Davidson and Magnum photojournalism, or in the family chronicles of Richard Billingham and Nick Waplington.

Instead, her smoldering protests against the injustice done to her family and her town seem inspired by the no-frills approach of Chauncey Hare and the conceptual model of Carrie Mae Weems.

Such austerity comes with a price. Not many pictures have the compositional muscle to stand on their own legs. The text has to prop them up and often carries too much of the semantic and emotional load. The decision to focus exclusively on her family to the exclusion of anyone else in Braddock diminishes any hope of a wider economic picture. One suspects that Frazier herself (or her editors) may be at fault for the unremittingly grim and mono-cultural perspective. The only moment of joy or relief in the book is a series of snapshots in color of her mother making Christmas dinner and suddenly hearing “Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation on the radio. She can’t help but start to dance. An artist should at least be able to suggest the flights of imagination that allowed her to free herself, and to see beyond the cold smoke-stacks of a busted steel town.

In a couple of two-page spreads—on the left: her mother in a medical gown, with her back to us and bundles of wires connecting to a machine out-of-frame; on the right: the demolished hospital that served the Braddock community for decades—the book aims to score political points. But as photography is better at presenting the consequences of economic inequality than its many causes, these are of limited evidentiary value. A map, illustrating the vast distances to another hospital and the limited options for anyone without a car, might have offered a more pointed attack on the effects of hospital closures on small communities.

The relaxed ambiguity in the book’s title—a notion of family is a far cry from genetic determinism—contrasts smartly with the tense relationship between the photographer and her subjects. If Frazier’s mother and grandmother have grown into adulthood expecting to be ignored, by the world within and beyond Braddock, this book has made sure they won’t be.

Collector’s POV: LaToya Ruby Frazier is represented by Michel Rein Gallery in Paris/Brussels (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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