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How Zoe Strauss Flips Urban Stereotypes on Their Head

Using money she had received for her 30th birthday, Zoe Strauss bought a camera in 2000 and began shooting a 10-year project that had previously existed only in her imagination. The urban landscape of Philadelphia and its inhabitants soon found a new herald and champion in Strauss, who dreamed of creating “an epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life.” In Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 22, 2012, Strauss invades the rarified world of the culture industry and injects the gritty reality of the deindustrialized inner city, thus sending sparks flying from that clash and reenergizing both worlds. Strauss flips all the dehumanizing stereotypes of urban life in America on their head and restores the human face and indomitable spirit behind the façade of decaying infrastructure.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2001, Strauss staged her first photo exhibition among the concrete pillars holding up I-95 as it cuts through the eastern edge of Philadelphia. As curator Peter Barberie explains in the beautifully illustrated catalog to the exhibition, the attacks of September 11th played a significant role in this first installment of what would become Strauss’ decade-long tradition. “The situation cast a strange, sad timeliness onto Strauss’ exhibition, which in its broadest terms was about everyday American life,” Barberie writes. “She had begun planning the installation before the attacks, when national identity was already a topic that interested her. But unfolding events gave the subject a new urgency…” Every American old enough to remember the attacks also remembers the (sadly fleeting) feeling of unity and togetherness in our country that flooded the country immediately afterwards. Strauss’ photography attempts to analyze that feeling and its impermanence, all while hoping to bring it back and make it last.

“I wanted to explore the strength in how we figure out our lives, and the truth of how sometimes we can’t work it out,” Strauss explains in her own compelling, heart-felt catalog essay. “And I wanted pride, resignation, exhaustion, beauty, ignorance, insight, desire, strength. I wanted everything.” Strauss’ photographs indeed bring in everything—from the odd beauty of how a stain adds to the pattern on a bare mattress, to the way mounds of road salt waiting in municipal dumps form mini-mountain ranges, to an old woman stricken with Alzheimer’s raging like King (Queen?) Lear with a canine replacement for Cordelia in her arms, to the surgical scars proudly bared as physical manifestations of the scarring within, to two men named simply Ken and Don unashamedly expressing their affection for the camera. As someone who grew up in Philadelphia in the 1970s, I quickly recognized the face of Benny Krass, co-owner of Krass Brothers clothing store and a local icon for his “crass” (get it?) TV commercials, in one of Strauss’ photos. Strauss visited Krass Brothers store on their final day of business in 2002 to capture the quirky heroism of this master of bad jokes in the face of economic strain. In what many consider the crass or distasteful elements of our society, Strauss finds strength and courage and captures those qualities in her art.

If Walter Pater was right and “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” then the art of Zoe Strauss aspires to the condition of pop music—“pop” in the sense of “popular” and “populist.” In addition to crediting Bruce Springsteen as a personal hero, Strauss has referenced Woody Guthrie, The Beach Boys, Tom Petty, and Billie Holiday in her art. The accessibility of those musical artists finds its match in the accessibility of Strauss’ images, which require no textual explanation for the viewer to understand the meaning of them in human terms. However, when you do learn the story, each image takes on even a deeper significance. In South Philly (Mattress Flip Front) (shown above), a young African-American boy defies gravity and nearly flies outside the frame as his friend enjoys the show in the back. Sadly, that smiling boy on the ground, Lawrence “Boo” Rose, died by gunfire in 2007. That mixture of pleasure and pathos in one picture makes much of Strauss’ work almost Shakespearean in scope and universality.

Photos such as Mattress Flip serve as windows onto a world many of us never see, yet think we understand. Zoe Strauss: Ten Years stands as the central piece of a much broader effort to make that window effect open even wider. Fifty-four billboards scattered around Philadelphia will feature images from the show during the duration of the exhibition—many in the same struggling neighborhoods Strauss originally shot in. Young artists Dan Murphy and Anthony Smyrski, known collectively as Megawords, have taken over a space in the museum near the exhibition to serve as equal parts gathering space, event venue, artist studio, and store in an effort to reclaim the cultural realm for the everyday person. Zoe completes the invasion by taking over the museum’s director’s office for the duration of the show. Her open door policy will open doors for all those who doubt that art and all the other good things in life are beyond their reach.

I recently attended the funeral for a friend’s mother in the Kensington section of Philadelphia—one of the poorer sections of the city that continually finds itself lumped into urban stereotypes of “Killadephia” and thuggish sports fans. Standing in that beautiful old church, founded by immigrants nearly a century ago and sustained by the continued faith of their descendants, I remembered visiting my grandparents’ home nearby as a teen and wondering why and how they could live there. Zoe Strauss: Ten Years supplies all the whys and hows for how people can not only live there, but also sometimes thrive there, all why never forgetting that many still die there.

[Image:South Philly (Mattress Flip Front), 2001 (negative); 2003 (print). Zoe Strauss, American, born 1970. Chromogenic print, Image: 6 7/8 x 10 1/8 inches (17.5 x 25.7 cm), Sheet: 8 x 10 3/8 inches (20.3 x 26.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with funds contributed by Theodore T. Newbold and Helen Cunningham, 2003.]

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with the image above, a review copy of the catalog to, and other press materials related to Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, which runs through April 22, 2012.]


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