Wednesday, May 16, 2007
I need to start somewhere else for this one . . . Saxton, Pennsylvania to be specific. I came across this Katy Grannan photo on Artnet a couple years ago. It was taken not far from where I grew up in western Pennsylvania. To be honest, I'm not very patient when it comes to photography. In this case, though, I knew the subject. Iconically, at least. In this shot, Grannan told the story of not just this young woman, but of hundreds of women I knew growing up there. I still love this photo. It's an amazing photograph. I get that, but I also pretty quickly became aware of a sense of the "other" in Grannan's work the more I investigated. The elements of staging and voyeurism got in the way for me. I realized that it was an issue that pushed me away from most work like this. I was thinking about this back in March when Grannan did a big editorial for the NYTimes Magazine. My strong, but predictably tempered, reaction to those photos was set in stark contrast to a response I had experienced just the day before when I came across a post on photographer and installation artist Zoe Strauss's blog.
Katy Grannan, Jada, Sugar Camp Road, Saxton, Pa.
Strauss had just learned of the death of one her subjects, Monique. I sat in my apartment and read the post and I wept. I've probably looked at Grannan's photo more than Strauss's images of Monique. As much as I understood Grannan's photograph, I came to realize that it was Strauss's images of Monique that had penetrated more deeply. When I saw Monique's story through Strauss's eye, it entered my story. There was no Other. There was no distance. A part of me wished there had been. I ached a little bit for the distance of Grannan, Arbus, or even Goldin. No such luck. If I wanted to truly appreciate Strauss's work everything was going to have to come in. In fact, it already had. Horror had opened the door for beauty. Looking at that second photo of Monique is tough, but it's also difficult to see the image honestly and not notice that flowing blue just behind her, all tangled up with the living.
In her portraits, what comes through the lens is Strauss's sense of oneness and, more importantly, the responsibility that accompanies it. We're all in this together, kids. Whether the portrait is of the desperate scene in Camden Crack or the more poised and posed moment found in Vanessa, one gets the feeling that the photographer is occupying the same exact place and time as the person on the other side of her lens. Strauss isn't capturing the moment as much as she is sharing it with her subject. She just happens to be the one with the camera.
Strauss's photography isn't limited to portraits. Her found text, abstract, and landscape photographs betray a keen understanding of form. Often they serve as a counterpoint to the intimate subject matter of the portraits, but they can be just as heartbreaking sometimes and certainly just as political. Witness Mom Were OK [sic] from the series of photographs she took in the Gulf after Katrina. The way the perfect lines of the building are crushed by the weight of carrying those nine blue letters. Seriously. Sometimes this is like open-heart surgery.
All of these photos lead to one thing, Strauss's ecstatic public art project, the I-95 show. For 3 hours, once a year, the photographer posts about 230 of her images on columns underneath the I-95 underpass in south Philly. It's open to the public. High quality Xerox prints of most of the photos on display are available for $5. At the end of the day, everybody is allowed to pull down their favorite print and take it home. These prints are archival ink-jet, and they are free for the taking. Now this is public art. (Art market. Fuck you.) The show is a constantly unfolding maze of juxtapostion with photographs leading the viewer from one to another, sometimes with a soft nudge and sometimes with a jolt or a jostle. Always with a kick.
My first encounter with Zoe and her art was at the last Whitney Biennial. I heard her laughing and shouting around the corner. Roberta and Libby had gone into the room where she was readying her slideshow, and they were all celebrating Zoe's inclusion in the exhibition. Zoe was extremely excited about having a bench for people to sit on while they watched her photos come and go. My second encounter was later that day when I returned to get a closer look at the slideshow. Zoe was sitting on that same bench with an older woman, chatting away. Observing the familiarity and warmth, I assumed it was a proud relative who had come to show their support. Later I found out that I had been completely wrong. Zoe had just met her.
It's that same warmth and openness--combined with an unstoppable eye--that allows Zoe to bring us all together in a shared moment: subject, photographer, viewer. With Zoe Strauss, there is no other.
Zoe Strauss opens tomorrow, May 17th, at Silverstein. The opening reception is Saturday night, and Strauss will be offering color photocopy prints for $5.
UPDATE! Stopped by Silverstein last night and they had just finished hanging the show. Even with tools and ladders strewn about it looks AWESOME!