JTF (just the facts): More than 100 color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in a series of connected rooms filling the street-level floor of the exhibition space. All of the works are inkjet prints, ranging in size from 8×10 to 20×30. In addition, several hundred color images are digitally projected in a separate room toward the rear of the floor. The number and order of these images changes constantly and irregularly as the artist adds or subtracts from them, and many of the images are duplicates of the paper prints in the other rooms. (Installation shots below. ©International Center of Photography, 2013. Photographs by John Berens.)
Comments/Context: Zoe Strauss occupies a unique position in contemporary American photography. Her body of work over the last 10 years–blunt, empathic portraits of America’s urban poor, perhaps the most sustained and original chronicle of the nation’s recent hard times—fits squarely into the history of photojournalism even if the means by which she has supported her project are unconventional. Kept afloat by foundation grants rather than magazine or commercial assignments, she has functioned more like a community organizer and archivist than a credentialed reporter strolling through a ghetto or parachuting into the latest global disaster. She is best-known for photographing friends and neighbors and mounting annual one-day shows of these people and places beneath an I-95 overpass near her home in South Philadelphia.
Like many socially committed documentary photographers, she has an uneasy relationship with the moneyed world of galleries and museums. Digital prints at her I-95 shows were taped to concrete pillars and offered for sale at $5 a piece. Her slideshow last year at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery seemed to challenge collectors–either buy the mass of 229 images or go away. Anyone wondering about individual print quality was in effect told, as one of her graffiti messages says, “IF YOU READING THIS, FUCK YOU.”
The ICP has its own unresolved issues with the fine-arts tradition and is the ideal venue for her achievement. (The show was organized by Peter Barberie, photography curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it was shown in 2012; it has been installed here by ICP curator Kristen Lubben.) With the concurrent Lewis Hine retrospective on the basement floor as a historical foundation, 10 Years clarifies the ways that Strauss is—and is not— in the words of ICP founder Cornell Capa a “concerned photographer.”
Strauss’s pictures are remarkable for their sense of solidarity with the people in her pictures. Two men lying half-naked together in Las Vegas, or a woman showing off her gold tooth and wedding ring in Biloxi, Mississippi, or an Amy Winehouse impersonator in Philadelphia have their own reasons for appearing in Strauss’s human catalog. But their consent is implicit. They wouldn’t pose for her camera unless they had learned, or could intuit, that she has their back.
As impressive as Strauss’s rapport with her subjects is the trust she maintains with viewers. She is not a street photographer in the stealthy manner of Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand. I suspect she doesn’t believe that catching people unaware is playing fair, even when her camera might hint at truths they would prefer to conceal. But if she is wary of exploiting her friends, she is also careful not to romanticize them. The abject indignity of being sick or poor, and the precarious attempt to keep up a front when surrounded by failure, is the larger picture formed by her images. Messages from commercial signs (“Dollar Magic,” “Everything is Name Brand”) or graffiti (“Paris in Jail”) further the distance between people’s aspirations and the reality of their lives.
Strauss may smolder at the growing imbalance of power and incomes in the U.S. today, but she isn’t a social crusader like Hine. He saw photography as a tool to fix things broken on the wheel of capitalism, such as the wretched conditions for children in early 20th century factories. Strauss’s pictures aren’t so pragmatic or optimistic. Either things are beyond fixing in her Philadelphia neighborhood or she realizes that photography can’t do much to repair them. The best she can do is to leave the people she cares about with an honest playback of their daily struggles.
Self-taught, she has created her own identity by assimilating a host of influences in a brief period of time. Along with Hine and Walker Evans, one can find strong traces of Helen Levitt, William Eggleston, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Alec Soth in her diary-like approach and color harmonies, along with touches of Chauncey Hare’s more pointed sarcasm.
When presented as a slide show, her images inevitably call to mind Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Strauss must suspect that she has nothing to fear from the comparison. The landmark status of Goldin’s book and photo-performance, a first-person account of the Lower East Side before AIDS and gentrification, is undeniable. It has left its imprint, for better or worse, on successive generations of young artists. Strauss, however, doesn’t need a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack or a self-confessional back-story to disguise formal shortcomings. Nor has she benefited from being associated with an art scene that likes to gaze at pictures of itself. Her camera is directed outward, into the streets and stores of communities populated by working-class people, much like herself.
It should be noted that Strauss’s version of the world is less convincing the further she moves away from home. Her takes on Las Vegas and Atlanta feel more generic that her dispatches from Philadelphia or Camden or Allentown. When she photographs a man’s skeletal back, a gnawed chicken wish-bone, a house that has been sawed in half, a wintry black-and-white billboard in coal country, you can tell that Strauss isn’t seeing these individuals or locations for the first time.
Nominated last year for membership in Magnum, she is in synch with others there–Susan Meiselas, Jim Goldberg, Soth–who are expanding the mission and techniques of social documentary. Even if she or that august collective should decide against the marriage, Strauss is too conscientious a photographer that a MacArthur Fellowship can’t be far away in her future.
Collector’s POV: As this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Zoe Strauss is represented in New York by Bruce Silverstein Gallery (here). Her work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.