If, like me, you have traveled from out of town to see Zoe Strauss’s exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you might encounter it well before reaching the museum. Near Thirtieth Street Station stand two billboards side by side. One is a straight-on view of a weathered plywood board nailed to a telephone pole in the middle of anywhere, surrounded by nothing but sky. Spray-painted in red on the makeshift sign is the phrase Don’t Forget Us. The other billboard shows the dilapidated facades of a block of three-story row houses; some of their windows are boarded up, and shreds of a strange white material hang from the window frames. Only after passing the billboards did I realize that I had already stepped into “Ten Years,” on view through April 22 in the streets of Philadelphia as much as within the temple of art on the hill in Fairmount Park. Even the most cosmopolitan of local residents seeking out the fifty-four images Strauss has situated throughout the city will end up roaming across unknown territory.
The billboards are not ads for the show. Uncaptioned, without any indication of their purpose or sponsor, they demand to be experienced on their own terms, visually and semiotically, if they are to be understood at all. They owe their meaning mostly to the response of each viewer. Even the pairing of the two near Thirtieth Street Station, which encourages one to find an implicit connection between them, is unusual, because most of Strauss’s other billboard photographs are isolated, unmoored from their artistic context—seemingly urgent messages crying out to be decoded, but without a key.
Some of the images on the billboards are also among the nearly 150 on view at the museum (along with three slide projection pieces that include still more images), but their meaning is altered by the indoor context, and not only because of the extreme difference in scale. (Strauss is not one of the size queens of contemporary photography; a billboard, a standard photograph, a projected slide, a reproduction in a zine or a jpeg on her blog are all equally valid ways of conveying different aspects of her project.) In the densely hung galleries the photographs are forever forming new constellations of meaning: the museum creates the possibility for the images to coalesce into something like a discourse. As writers like Boris Groys and David Carrier have reminded us, the museum is the context for art; yet artists are often uneasy with this condition, and rightly so. While it may be true that art’s home is the museum, art often looks homeless there, stranded, isolated from its living sources. Like an unhappy adolescent, museum-bound art is in perpetual conflict with itself, and its deep desire may be to run away from home—to find its other contexts, its other homes or homes-away-from-home.
Strauss’s work was a runaway from birth, and by putting her photographs on billboards she is returning them to the streets from which they sprang. Many of the photos were shot on the street, and with an eye mindful of the now-venerable tradition of street photography whose earlier protagonists include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand, image-makers determined to record the random and unruly essence of modern urban life by catching on the fly those odd, almost unnoticeable moments when reality seems to have let its guard down. But more than that, Strauss’s images are not only about but for the urban rough-and-tumble. The streets of Philadelphia have become her museum: no admission, no coat-check, no guards, and a true public space for all that.
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While the most interesting thing about Zoe Strauss is her pictures, the second most interesting thing is how the end run she’s made around the art world has led her pretty much to its center. The story starts, at least as told by Peter Barberie, the curator of “Ten Years,” on the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2001, when Strauss, who had been eking out a living mostly as a baby sitter and had been involved as a social activist in organizations like ACT UP, “pasted around thirty color photographs onto concrete columns beneath an elevated section of Interstate Highway 95 in Philadelphia.” Some of the images were of places in the immediate vicinity; others were taken farther afield. Strauss has explained that, having little previous experience of photography or formal training in any art, and not even owning a camera, “I decided I wanted to work on a large-scale public art project comprised of photographs that were to be placed outside…. I had cooked up the idea for the big installation first, and the individual photos were going to be made with the intent of being a part of this installation.” Strauss sat with her installation for the day and then went home, leaving the pictures outdoors. She was determined to make the installation an annual event for ten years, but ended up organizing two similar exhibitions the next year and another in 2003 before moving to what Barberie describes as “a similar but much larger space, still under the highway” in a different part of the city, where she exhibited her photographs annually from 2004 through 2010.
Strauss’s first outdoor exhibition drew only a few visitors, most of whom already knew her. But the recurring exhibitions brought more notice, and she eventually received a grant from a local organization that supports women and transgender artists. More grants followed, enabling her not only to keep working but to travel beyond Philadelphia in search of material—and eventually to quit baby-sitting. In 2006 Strauss gained national recognition through her inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, in New York City, where she displayed her images as a sequence of projected slides. Up through the most recent and final outdoor exhibition under I-95, she sold and signed photocopy prints of her images for $5. One imagines her photographs have fetched higher prices at the relatively few exhibitions she’s had in commercial galleries (most notably two shows at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York); but many of her exhibitions, other than those she has organized herself, have been in museums and other nonprofit spaces. The art blogger Tyler Green has rightly pointed out that a family of four would have to pay $56 to see the museum component of “Ten Years”—more than many of Strauss’s subjects would feel they could afford.
Within ten years Strauss has gone from being a baby sitter whose ideas and ambitions were being acted out mainly in her imagination to becoming, as the present exhibition confirms, one of her hometown’s most prominent artists. Given that history, it is tempting to see Strauss as a sort of outsider artist, transfixed by an inner vision that transcends the need for a style shaped by tradition. Nothing could be further from the truth. Looking at her images at the museum or on the billboards, one can’t help noticing overt references to the history of photography. Barberie, in his catalog essay, points to traces of imagery by a wide range of photographers, from Lewis Baltz to William Eggleston, Walker Evans to Allan Sekula, among others. He quotes Strauss’s acknowledgment that she owes her interest in the slide-show format to Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1979/2004) and notes that her ambivalence toward Andres Serrano’s Nomads (1990)—ravishing, arguably glamorized studio portraits of homeless people, which Strauss saw in 1994 at Philadelphia’s ICA—“prompted her to think critically about photography.” And that’s only scratching the surface. I could point to images that suggest a close acquaintance with the works of Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Avedon and Mark Morrisroe as well.
What to make of this wealth of references to an extremely eclectic bunch of precursors? Does Strauss, far from being the maverick she seems, simply lack originality? Is her eclectic talent limited to sampling bits and pieces of existing styles without fashioning one of her own? The concentrated dose of her work on view at the Philadelphia Museum should eliminate any such suspicions. Everything here adds up. Strauss is an artist of strong sensibility, and for this reason she has no need to avoid trying out an aspect of techniques defined by others; if anything, she is self-consciously testing how far she can expand her reach and challenge her aesthetic preconceptions. From the beginning, as someone new to the practice of photography but nervy enough to exhibit her work in public without seeking the validation of a curator or gallerist, she has taken the stance not of a master but of a student conducting her ongoing education in the open. What she has gleaned from her precursors is mostly a confirmation of the choices she’d already made in her work.
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Strauss may be at ease with her artistic forebears, but at times I wish she were just as nonchalant toward the subjects of her photographic portraits, which represent about a third of her portfolio. Strauss has said that when she’s doing a portrait, “the person I’m making the portrait of is an active participant. They can choose however they want to pose, and the most I usually ask is for someone to move in or out of a shadow.” If only she were sometimes pushier. While Strauss has made some searing, unforgettable portraits, portraiture is the most conventional feature of her oeuvre—which is strange, because it seems that her humanistic approach would put the accent on human presence. As it turns out, absence can be more eloquent, and the billboards near Thirtieth Street Station are testament to that.
In portraiture, Strauss often resorts to a minimalist approach, a foursquare presentation of a subject looking straight at the camera, framed by an urban environment that is likewise “facing” the camera but generally not examined in any great detail. I’m thinking of her pictures like Tonya, Chicago (2007), Wench With Cigarette, Philadelphia (2010), Whopper, Philadelphia (2009) and Woman With Red Hair and Green Bag, Madrid (2009). Each has striking features—in the case of the last, not so much the shocking scarlet dye job of an otherwise ordinary housewife out grocery shopping as the way her coiffure, and the jazzy graphic pattern of her housedress, call as much attention to the pale, nearly effaced graffiti on the gray wall behind her as they do to themselves. As Woman With Red Hair and Green Bag shows, even at her most straightforward, Strauss always finds much of visual interest when she makes a photograph. But that may not reveal much about the person whose presence is the photograph’s occasion or about that person’s place in his or her urban milieu. Strauss’s noninvasive approach to her subjects, her willingness to accept at face value the image they want to present to the world, honorable though it may be, can make for a gallery of idiosyncratic neighborhood characters one observes with fascination but who leave little mark on one’s memory.
When the subject is willing to offer more to the camera—or perhaps does so inadvertently—the results can be remarkable. Once you have seen Daddy Tattoo, Philadelphia (2004), you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Again, the subject is centered in the frame, facing the camera, backed by a wall slightly off-parallel to the picture plane; in the upper left corner is a heavily scratched window in which one sees both glinting reflections of the outdoors and a cheap neon light fixture glowing within. But there’s a little bit of a twist to the figure; she’s holding an odd, unbalanced pose that’s slightly disguised by the plastic shopping bag slung over her shoulder—as if she had been walking forward but suddenly stopped and, leaning back, had turned her head to face the photographer. What’s really facing us is the tattoo of the title. The woman is made up in an Amy Winehouse manner—grotesque but spellbinding—and her hair is brushed across her face, nearly hiding the eye that’s slightly closer to the camera. And yet her eyes (the one we can see and even the one we can’t quite see) are seething—somehow both deep-dark and incandescent, armored and melting at once. Whatever passed between subject and photographer in that moment, it was no simple encounter; this gaze is as vulnerable as it is riveting, and burning with questions.
Another photograph that’s hard to forget, for different reasons, is Monique Showing Black Eye, Philadelphia (2006). Here, unlike in most of Strauss’s portraits, there’s hardly any background—just some unidentifiable blue, not the sky, in one corner. The camera has pulled in tight to show how horribly this girl has been beaten—even if you knew her likeness, you might not recognize her in this bruised, swollen mess. (You might think of Nan Goldin’s 1984 self-portrait Nan One Month After Being Battered—but this is even worse.) Together Strauss and Monique are showing just how vulnerable a human being can be, but at the same time, the frankness of Monique’s self-presentation implies an inner strength unscarred by her physical wounds. By showing herself this way Monique is making her protest, one might say. The sight of her face is so disturbing that one might not notice the tattoo on her arm as it intersects the bottom left corner of the photograph. It looks familiar: it’s the Daddy tattoo from the photograph taken two years before.
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Thankfully, sights as rough as Monique’s face are rare in Strauss’s oeuvre. There’s much beauty in her work, but little that’s pretty, and Monique’s sense of protest is always lurking somewhere beneath the surface of Strauss’s images. Consider the two billboards by the train station. Between them they represent the two other most common kinds of motifs in Strauss’s photographs: landscapes (especially but not exclusively cityscapes) and what might be broadly called signs. The latter includes all the manifestations of the written word in our visual environment, from graffiti to billboards to shop signs, and all manner of ways things get labeled with writing, including the tattoos with which people brand more or less overt or ambiguous messages onto themselves, from Monique’s “Daddy” to the odd glyphs on the face of the young man in Whopper, Philadelphia—gang markings?—to the tiny ones I didn’t want to inspect too closely, as they’re sported by a couple of mummers in Tattooed Penises, Philadelphia (2008). Don’t Forget Us could be the unwritten motto for all these images, those with people and, even more so, those in which we see only what people have made, what they have done, what they are responsible for.
Gertrude Stein wrote, in her novel The Making of Americans, “perhaps no one will ever know the complete history of every one. This is a sad thing. Perhaps no one will ever have as a complete thing the history of any one. This is a very sad thing.” Such a sadness imbues Strauss’s work—the melancholy of knowing that every image contains stories, and stories behind stories, that will never be fully conveyed. Of course, although a single photograph can illustrate a story, it can never tell one by itself. Sometimes, by putting two or more images together, a story can be implied, as happens when one notices that Daddy Tattoo and Monique show the same person two years apart, or when one imagines that the billboards showing the homemade sign and the row houses, though evidently not taken in the same place, suggest a larger, broader story nonetheless. In the case of the billboards, it would help to know the circumstances in which the images were made. On a press tour of some of the billboards before the opening of her show at the Philadelphia Museum, Strauss explained that she had found the Don’t Forget Us sign in Grand Isle, Louisiana, near the Gulf Coast, not long after the BP oil spill; the houses with the tattered white material, she said, were substandard ones built to replace the sixty homes destroyed when the Philadelphia Police bombed the headquarters of MOVE in 1985.
How to point visually to things without surrendering all the advantages of being able to speak about them is a recurrent problem for photographers. Strauss handles this problem better than most, and she handles it best when she’s concentrating not on people directly but on the story-traces they have left on their environment, whether through words or otherwise. The images offer the information needed to understand the force of their broad message; the backstory provides some particulars to hang the message on. Strauss is more interested in the desire to know one another’s stories, and to make them known, than in the stories themselves. And yet people, places and signs, the three big categories in which Strauss goes fishing for imagery, can sometimes turn out to be almost indistinguishable. Another of her billboards shows I Love You rendered in what looks like blue spray paint on an oddly mottled surface. It’s not easy to tell if the words are in the photograph or on it. After a minute it dawned on me that I was looking at an extreme close-up of a tattooed arm. At billboard scale, body and landscape become nearly identical, sharing language equally between them. Thinking big works well for Zoe Strauss. n