Zoe Strauss

A couple months ago I saw that Zoe Strauss was having an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The content of the show definitely intrigued me, and the more I found out about Zoe, the more interested I became.

Born in Philadelphia, Strauss was given a camera for her 30th birthday and started taking pictures of life in the city’s marginal neighborhoods. She is a photo-based installation artist who uses Philadelphia as a primary setting and subject for her work. Out in the streets, Strauss typically photographs whatever strikes her interest, paying particular attention to the overlooked (or purposefully avoided) details of life.

In 1995, she started the Philadelphia Public Art Project, a one-woman organization whose mission is to give the citizens of Philadelphia access to art in their everyday lives. Strauss’s photographic work culminates in a yearly “Under I-95” show, which takes place beneath the Interstate highway in South Philadelphia. She displays her photographs on concrete pillars under the highway and sells photocopied prints of her work for $5 each. Strauss now calls the Philadelphia Public Art Project an “epic narrative” of her own neighborhood. “When I started shooting, it was as if somewhere hidden in my head I had been waiting for this,” she says.

In 2002, she received a Seedling Award in photography from the Leeway Foundation. In 2005, she received a Pew Fellowship. In 2006, her work was included in the Whitney Biennial; she also mounted a solo exhibition, “Ramp Project: Zoe Strauss” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.

Zoe Strauss was named a 2007 USA Gund Fellow and granted $50,000 by United States Artists, an arts advocacy foundation dedicated to the support and promotion of America’s top living artists.

The first member of her immediate family to graduate from high school, Strauss is deeply connected to her roots and her surroundings. She frequently shoots near her grandparents’ former home at 16th and Susquehanna, and her mother lives a few blocks from Strauss’ rowhouse (her father died when she was 6). Three younger siblings – there are three surnames between them – are artistic, “super smart and engaging.” Brother Cosmo Baker is a noted DJ in Philadelphia and New York.

Strauss’s photos of shuttered buildings, empty parking lots and vacant meeting halls illuminate her South Philly neighborhood’s grim character. Her intimate portraits capture the dignified resignation of its residents. Strauss says her work is “a narrative about the beauty and difficulty of everyday life.”[2]

Zoe Strauss is the author of America, published November 2008 by AMMO Books.

– (Wikipedia)

I know her brother Cosmo. I painted with him a few times and we did pieces on him for both Foundation magazine and Jump magazine. Cos is one of the nicest, most humble and gracious dudes I have ever met.

There is a lot to say about Zoe’s path to get where she is. There is a good amount of articles on and interviews with her. They are all worth reading. (As is the book about the current exhibit, full not only of pictures but also super insightful and explanatory information.) But what I really wanted to focus on was her 10 Years retrospective.

I wish I could say I have known about her for years. I haven’t. But when I started learning about her history, her previous exhibits and installations, her philosophic approach to what she photographs, I was pretty blown away. And then there are the photos themselves.

This is a small sampling, small cross-section, of some of the images Zoe has captured. They do not do do her work justice. These small images do not represent or capture her work, or convey or evoke the same emotion as seeing them in person. (You can see all the photos she takes on her Flickr. Or follow her blog or on Facebook.) But they give a taste of her subject matter. The juxtapositions of signage against a background that often gives you the opposite message. Portraits of people who are struggling, that give them unflinching dignity, and despite the often gritty reality, come across as tender. And photos that are beautiful, and it takes a minute to discern what exactly you are looking at. (Often accomplished through capturing reflections in windows, or close-ups of objects that you get lost in, and force yourself to pull away from to understand what it is.)

I went with Jona for the opening day of the exhibit. I have gone back with Gas and Rob, and will probably go back at least once more before the exhibit ends on April 22nd. (Oddly enough, or not, Jona and her family is close with Zoe’s family. And Rob has known Zoe since she was a little girl.) I went again yesterday and doing a blog post about Zoe has been on my to-do list, but I have struggled with how to accurately describe the exhibit or my experiences there. But seeing how the showing is coming to an end, I wanted to try, in case someone wanted to go see it for themself.

One of the great things about going is seeing the diversity of people who are there to see it. There is the photography crowd, the graff heads, art school girls, and everything in between. There is something for everyone. And watching as people are confronted with worlds they don’t usually come across, watching them exposed to other walks of life, is pretty incredible.

One of those moments was watching to bougie women in their late 60s, look at this picture:

I watched as one of the women leaned in close and out loud read, “IF YOU READING THIS FUCK YOU”. She turned in horror to the other woman, who she didn’t know, and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t usually use that word.” She had become so lost in the picture, she didn’t realize what she was doing. Or saying. It was great. I witnessed these type of interactions time and time again.

As I walked around judging people and watching people take Zoe’s work in, I noticed another what I guessed was a well to do, suburban soccer mom, with what I guessed was her 17 year old-ish daughter. I judged. It’s what I do. I imagined what it was like for them to see images like this, from what I guessed was an unfamiliar world, far from their own. I wondered what it was like for them to see some of the raw images. Then I overheard the mother talking to someone saying she and her daughter had been following Zoe for years, and had been to every single one of Zoe’s exhibits under 95. I appreciated the fact even I was confronted with my own preconceived notions and assumptions, forced to reexamine my own judgmental nature.

It’s great walking out of there too. It is inevitable to talk about the pieces that stuck out, left a lasting impression, the ones people find unforgettable, and why. Everyone experiences it different and has their own favorites. Methodology, motivation, exploitation, technique, etc. are also inevitable topics.

In conjunction with the exhibit is the Billboard Project.

The Billboard Project is a series of 54 billboards featuring photographs by Zoe Strauss, installed as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition Zoe Strauss: Ten Years. Installed throughout Philadelphia, the project is loosely structured around the themes of the Odyssey, presenting an epic story about journey and homecoming.  For ten years Strauss installed her annual I-95 exhibition in South Philadelphia which she describes as an “epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life.” The Billboard Project represents another telling of that narrative. Displaying photographs from Strauss’s travels around the country including Grand Isle Beach in the Gulf of Mexico, Venice Beach, CA, Rosedale, MS, and Fairbanks, AK, the Billboard Project is designed for both residents and visitors, encouraging each to construct their own narrative and journey around these images. In addition to underscoring the themes of journey and homecoming, the billboards will also touch upon the subjects of migration and immigration, fortune, hospitality, conflict and resolution, decision-making and mystery.  Special thanks to Clear Channel Outdoor and Krain Outdoor Advertising  for their generous donation of the billboards to extend the reach of the exhibition into the city of Philadelphia. Extra special thanks to Gary Turner.

I can’t see I have made it a point to catch them all, but it is inevitable not to have come across some of them. (Even though they have started taking them down.) What I wonder every time are the people that have seen them that have no idea what is behind the project. I am sure they have sparked many a conversation in their own right.

I feel like there is still so much to say, but would have no idea where to begin. Like I have talked about with certain films and books, to see the exhibit is really an experience. I hope people check it out, and like it or not, let me know what you think.

Some video slideshows of her work: