Books

A Street Photographer for the 21st Century

by Alissa Guzman on May 7, 2012

(All photos of "Zoe Strauss: 10 Years" by the author for Hyperallergic)

Everything about the catalogue for the exhibition Zoe Strauss: 10 Years, published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2012), where the exhibition was installed this spring, speaks to the personality of Zoe Strauss herself. From the price, an insanely affordable $19.95 for a 270-page book with 250 color reproductions, to the conversational essays, and a layout that reminds you of Frank’s Americans or Eggleston’s Democratic Camera, the catalogue’s book format seems to suit Strauss more than the museum’s galleries. The exhibition catalogue is the perfect delivery system for Strauss’s artwork, bringing together her gritty, urban photographs as well as her conceptual ideas about how to share them.

Strauss is, if there ever was, a democratic artist. During the PMA’s exhibition, Strauss actually kept office hours at the museum. Any viewer, student, or admirer could make an appointment to speak with the artist about her work, making Strauss unusually — but characteristically — accessible. Strauss also installed some of her photographs from the exhibition on billboards scattered across the city, in a continued effort to reach the people who might not have the wherewithal to visit the museum show itself.

Self-taught, Strauss began using photography after she was given a camera for her 30th birthday. After beginning the 10 Years project, Strauss began showing her artwork not in galleries or group shows, but beneath the I-95 freeway in South Philadelphia. Onto the cement columns of an underpass that ruthlessly cut through preexisting neighborhoods when it was built, and left houses and residents stranded from the city afterwards, Strauss pasted her documentary style photographs of working class, American life. Staring outwards from drab, gray pillars were the faces of hardworking, disenchanted, and marginalized Philadelphians. Making the I-95 installation an annual project, Strauss’s unconventional and seemingly impromptu exhibitions gathered momentum and notoriety with each passing year.

Zoe Strauss is a street photographer in the most traditional sense of the word, and street photography has always lent itself well to the book format. Strauss makes use of an aesthetic that has been dismissed, and deemed too dated to be interesting, relevant, or encouraged. It’s refreshing, however, to see that classic street photography can still effectively depict the timeless troubles of American society, and it’s inspiring that the genre has been revitalized by a woman. Competing alongside great male street photographers like Evans, Frank, Eggleston, Friedlander, and their iconic books, Strauss’s 10 Years holds its own; her images have a 21st century poignancy and urgency that makes the exhibition catalogue unforgettable.

The artist in 1991

Small images whether seen in the museum, under the I-95, or in the 10 Years book, Strauss’s photographs lose little of their power when reproduced and placed into a different layout. 10 Years is a simple and straightforward book, beautifully designed to give the photographs room to breathe. Surrounded by a thick, white border and centered on the page, the photographs are not forced to echo each other formally, as so many photographic books do for the sake of cohesion. Instead, the seamless editing and constant narrative of Strauss’s photographs allow the images to work together conceptually, while remaining different formally.

One photograph might be a portrait of a woman’s tattoo, scar or infected navel ring, and on the opposite page battered mini blinds, a nightscape dotted with city lights, or the bright green ceiling of a pizza joint: the two images still work together, united by similar themes, perspective and composition. Not all the photographs in the monograph are forced to work as a spread, either, and some of the images that sit across from a blank white page work best because of it. The spacing and rhythm of the photographs in this catalogue, while seemingly effortless and unintentional, benefits and enhances the Strauss’s images themselves.

The content of Strauss’s individual photographs is not always disturbing, but paging through the entirety of 10 Years means talking a walk through neighborhoods and into situations that you might otherwise avoid. It means coming face to face with the people we don’t normally, or always, spend a long time looking at: sometimes we are uneasy feeling pity, guilt, or sadness. Strauss looks for us, and she looks without bias or judgment. In the first few pages of 10 Years we enter into situations that are jarring, as Strauss takes us into gloomy alleys, strange men’s bedrooms, and through unknown urban landscapes. In thinking about who bares themselves for an unknown camera, the voluntary feeling that permeates Strauss’s photographs is exactly what makes them feel so understanding and empathetic. The photographic curator Peter Barberie says of Strauss, “the woman and man on the street, yearning to be heard, are the basis of her art.”

Interspersed between groups of photographs are the monograph’s three essays: a playful and conversational essay by Strauss herself, a complicated and slightly convoluted piece by the art historian Sally Stein, and a real gem by Peter Barberie, chief curator of photography at the PMA, titled Zoe Strauss: Under I-95. Reading Strauss’s own essay, titled 30 to 40, is like reading an excerpt from her journal. She talks to us in an honest way, like she’s talking more to herself than to an unknown reader. Strauss discusses her own work, the photographs she likes, what they mean to her, and how she wishes to present them. Throughout, she adds humorous anecdotes like, “during the run of I-95, I lost three teeth. Essentially, they just broke and fell out of my mouth. I think three teeth is a high count for the duration of one art project.” Strauss refrains from making her essay like an artist statement, and though 30 to 40 is not a deep glimpse into the mind of the artist, it’s a causal look at what she was feeling and working on at that particular moment.

Peter Barberie’s essay, on the other hand, is a lovely mix of art history and personal opinion. Barberie possesses a deep understanding of Strauss and her history, and his essay seeks to place her into the genre of street photography, where I agree she rightfully belongs. He does so, however, without making her work feel derivative or unoriginal. His synopsis of Strauss’s artistic career is a detailed one. Starting with her obscure early work, he follows Strauss as she began traveling and photographing outside Philadelphia. “As she began traveling across the country,” he writes, “she sought out the places that the American dream had used up and left behind.” He studies her personal inspirations, like the 1985 MOVE bombing, (when local police firebombed a MOVE house, killing eleven people and starting a fire that burned down sixty other buildings), as well as Strauss’s artistic ones. Barberie explores Strauss’s interest in artists like Martha Rosler, William Eggleston, and Mark Cohan.

The 10 Years monograph isn’t an afterthought to the museum exhibition, as many catalogues tend to be, nor is it a beautiful take away, like a packet of postcards that help you remember the real thing. Instead, Zoe Strauss: 10 Years seems to work best as a book. It’s true that art books aren’t necessarily any more accessible to the audience Strauss is trying to reach with her photographs than a museum show, although they cost about the same and books you get to keep, but the format of a book does speak to a kind of inherent accessibility. Books, even art books, are egalitarian by nature, and are something many of us can afford who can’t afford art. I’m not sure that any of the people in Strauss’s photographs would buy her book, but I like the idea that they could. Books are the things, after all, that you find in boxes marked “free” outside the grocery store, or that are left stacked on someone’s stoop. Barberie says that Strauss’s work is “made for the street,” and a natural extension of the street is seems to be a book.

Zoe Strauss: 10 Years is published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

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  • Brad Goins

    The one reason I’ve always wanted to be rich: I could afford photography books. I’d love to see the images of these people

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