South Philly photographer Zoe Strauss has come a long way since she received a camera as a gift in 2000–so far, in fact, that an exhibition of 150 of Strauss’s photos (titled Zoe Strauss Ten Years) opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this Saturday night. Despite the amazing achievement of a museum show for Strauss, she also convinced the museum and Clear Channel to finance the placement of 54 of her photos around Philly on billboards, substituting the unreal optics of advertising with the real thing. PMA managed to bring her inside, but in the process, Zoe managed to take the museum outside to the neighborhoods, which is, after all, where she started. I’m referring, of course, to her Under I-95 series of photography exhibits, now in its 10th year, which she’s been hosting under an elevated section of I-95 in South Philly for one afternoon every May. Those exhibits in that dark, damp, underworldly space rumbling with the echo of rolling traffic, have the modest purpose of creating “an epic narrative that reflects the beauty and struggle of everyday life.”
If you’ve seen Strauss’s photography, you know that her work shows the poverty in America much more starkly than we normally see in the mainstream media. America ignores decaying neighborhoods and the disenfranchised in cities like Philadelphia, but that forgotten underbelly is Strauss’s raw material. Not that her photography is depressing. Look closely and you’ll see beauty and humor and self-respect in her portraits of Philadelphians and people from the Gulf Coast and what’s left of the Wild West. Strauss also takes photos with text (usually signs juxtaposed with some other content) and of architecture. These pieces often seem to be more about texture and geometry, although the locales usually feature the same trashed-out and decaying underbelly. These photos have more in common with her portraits than you might think. In fact, look at the faces in her photos long enough, and they too become part of the architecture. With their mounds of curving flesh, injuries, out-of-focus gazes, tongues, amputations, and tattoos, these portraits have their own textures and geometry. In fact, the face of Ms. Antoinette Conti (on a billboard at Passyunk, 9th, and Reed) is so epic, her flesh rolling like mountains, her gaze one of quiet strength, it should be on Mt. Rushmore.
But it’s more than just the imagery that makes this hometown gal’s photography so successful; it’s the way Strauss integrates her relationships with the people she meets into her photos. On meeting them, Strauss often invites herself into the homes of these people. As crazy as that sounds, Strauss is evidently so friendly and disarming that they welcome this stranger into their homes and allow her to photograph them, affording her an intimacy usually reserved for family and lovers. Rather than pose them, Strauss lets her subjects pose themselves and to determine the settings of the photos. In other words, she gives them the right to decide how they will be seen. These people open up to Strauss in surprising ways. She often becomes friends with them and visits them later. It’s this respect for her subjects we see in her photography. These are people who get very little respect elsewhere–hookers, transvestites, AIDS victims, crack addicts, skinheads, and other outsiders. This is what makes Strauss’ photography special. Her humanity gives it life.
Besides the main exhibit and the billboards, this show is a true Straussian extravaganza, including: Giant slide shows of her photos outside on the museum’s front walls from dusk to midngiht starting tonight and running through Monday. A 270-page, 4 lb. exhibition catalog, available for $38, which is a great deal. About 15 events including talks, concerts, and film screenings, such as a dance party with Jerry Blavat and King Britt Friday, January 20th, from 5 pm to 8:45 pm; a discussion between Strauss and musician Steve Earle on January 28th at 3 pm; and a talk by Strauss about how Bruce Springsteen influenced her work, March 4th at 2:30 pm. An installation created by the MegaWords team, Dan Murphy and Anthony Smyrski, to “offer alternatives to the ways visitors usually inhabit the Museum.” Zoe will also have office hours at the museum on Friday and Sunday afternoons “in an office she has decorated with paintings from the Museum’s collection” through the entire run of the exhibit. The public is invited to drop in and speak with her. Maybe she’ll take your picture. Lastly, the museum will be open Monday (the one day of the week it is usually closed), January 16th, with ‘pay what you wish’ admission policy. –MIKE WALSH