Music Feature

Can I Take Your Photo?

by Jenn Peck
Known for photographing disenfranchised people and places, Zoe Strauss spoke about her portraits, her career and community ties at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center.

I feel like I’ve stood behind Zoe Strauss in line at the grocery store before.  This is not because, as she stated on Saturday at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, she shops at the South Philly Acme, and so do I, but rather because she looks and sounds like someone who you’d run into at the grocery store:  an old friend, a reliable neighbor, a favorite aunt.  And while I’m not sure what I expected, it’s not surprising that Strauss comes across as an everyday person when her subjects are, in fact, everyday people.

"This is Cynthia,” Strauss introduced her first photograph during her talk at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center last weekend.  Later, when an audience member asked her, why Cynthia?, Strauss didn’t hesitate. 

“Cynthia is not precocious.  She’s serious and a little concerned but not aggressive. She has an idea of being in the world, both physically and environmentally.”  

While your eye is drawn to Cynthia in the photograph, you also can’t help but notice the background.  Strauss made a point to say that the photograph had been taken less than ten blocks from where we were on North American Street at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center.  And that, obviously, is important to Strauss.

It is so important that Strauss worked with the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center to produce the prints for her PMA exhibit and book.  “I wanted to print at a darkroom that supported Philadelphia arts,” Strauss commented.

“And they were the best,” she replied.  You could certainly feel the love between the artist and the center in the standing room only crowd at the lecture as the two thanked and complimented each other through the night.

The book and the exhibit are two of three parts of Zoe Strauss: 10 Years, a retrospective.  The third, the Billboard Project, takes 54 images, no text, and places them around the city in an arrangement loosely based on The Odyssey, also a 10 year journey.  The billboards, along with the sideshow of her images displayed on the side of the actual museum building, are important to Strauss as she wanted to talk about how there are boundaries that keep people from coming to the museum.

Clear Channel donated over forty of the billboards.  “And here I thought they were always like, a Halliburton” Strauss told the crowd during her talk and she thought long and hard about where she wanted each photo.  (For an example, she places a photo of an animal on a beach soaked in oil from the BP oil spill right next to a photograph showing the reconstruction of the MOVE houses.  You can see the two if you’re moving toward West Philadelphia where the MOVE bombings took place.) 

And so her attention to detail of placement means you won’t be surprised that Under I-95 wasn’t just Strauss halfhazardly throwing photos on highway pillars.  From 2000 to 2010, on the first weekend in May, Strauss displayed her work choosing that weekend specifically and starting specifically at 1PM because of “the shaft of light fully illuminated the area” and it was “imperative to define [the installation] with this moment of illumination”.

Strauss spoke for over an hour at the Photo Arts Center and it is obvious talking about her photographs is as important to her as displaying them.  “I don’t want my work to be didactic,” she said while talking about art outside institutionalized space.  The oral tradition, like with the Odyssey, she feels, is her responsibility as well and so she goes to each place where a billboard is displayed and talks about the project. 

You may not be able to bring people to the art but you can bring the art to the people.  And you can make people the art.  And you can make people talk about the art.  Zoe Strauss is succeeding at all three.


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