CHICAGO — To every story there is a backstory. Open the door and walk down the hall until you reach a room you haven’t been in before. The exhibition Backstory at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) travels down those halls, considering the photography of LaToya Ruby Frazier, Ron Jude, and Guillaume Simoneau — artists whose work intertwines personal narratives, reflections on the self in relation to others, and cultural backstories. These are not self-portraits or selfies, but rather photographic reflections on times since past, on places that once held significant meaning, on relationships that continue to ebb and flow, on states of being that are no longer present. The photographs in this stunning exhibition are not so much nostalgic as they are reflections, refracted light slicing through the window at the end of a hot summer day. And even to those carefree days, there is a backstory.
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s work, which occupies the mezzanine level of this exhibition that winds itself from the first to the third floor of the MoCP, documents struggles familial, economic and urban. For this body of work, she returns to her childhood home of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a city that felt the rise and fall of the steel industry, which collapsed in the 1980s around the same time that the community was hit with a crack cocaine epidemic. A town that has since lost 90 percent of its peak population, and is littered with abandoned homes and storefronts, Braddock is like the Ohio city of Elyria — an example of American prosperity and subsequent failure.
Frazier’s photographs show three generations of women — her, her mother, and her grandmother — experiencing life in Braddock, a city that many people perceive as long past its prime. Mayor John Fetterman came to Braddock as an Americorps volunteer, became fascinated by the place, and decided to stay; he has a tattoo of the city’s zip code on his arm to prove it. Like Ruby Frazier, Mayor Fetterman has no illusions about this town as a ghost of its former self that holds a fantastic amount of labor history, including the setting of America’s domestic Cold War, where pro- and anticommunist workers battled it out. Additionally, Braddock is the setting for Thomas Bell’s novel Out of This Furnace, about immigrant labor in the US, which follows three generations of steel workers.
Stark, emboldened, and honest in their portrayal of life in a city that is not prosperous, viewers witness highly personal experiences, such as a crucial surgery for Frazier’s mother, and Frazier grandmother going from standing out on the street to an empty chair where her grandmother used to sit to her body resting in a casket. Amidst all this, we see the absence of men, anchored in a self-portrait by Frazier in her grandfathers’ pajamas, in a city that was once populated by a working class of brazen bodies.
The work of Ron Jude and Guillame Simoneau doesn’t come close to matching the historical and emotional depth of Ruby Frazier’s, which anchors this exhibition. Ron Jude dug up old photographs from his adolescence growing up in a small rural town in Idaho, and developed them. Dreamy refracted rainbows against tree shadows, the artist napping, clouds drifting across a blue sky, and a rearview mirror reflecting back trees make the backstory of this American dream seem more plausible — even possible.
The second part of this series plays a clever game with media images; Jude removes photographs from his hometown newspapers, decontextualizing them from their original source. As such, the photographs appear as snapshots yet with a disembodied quality — without their original context, these charged images, such as a bear lurking over the edge of a rail — suggest the sort of haunting, lingering sense that there is a story we’re not privy to that would explain everything. Or would it?
The stacked series of photographs in Simoneau’s project Love and War (2010) have a Sophie Calle-esque tingle to them, as the viewer feels uncomfortably voyeuristic in looking through the photographs, which are documentation of his on-again, off-again relationship with a woman named Caroline Annandale, who decided to enlist in the US Army post-9/11, and was then sent to Iraq. This collection of photographs, text messages, and hand-written letters romanticizes what appears to be an emotionally difficult relationship, which further reinforces the idea that inspired art comes from a place of pain. While it can, this series is off-putting in the way it implicates the viewer as voyeur into a relationship that feels quite unresolved, in a space that is entirely too personal — painfully so.
Backstory at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (600 S. Michigan, Chicago) continues through October 6.