“They just aren’t pretty,” my grandmother declared after walking in and quickly out of Zoe Strauss’ solo exhibition at Silverstein Photography this past summer. I was startled. I had spent the last month visiting the people and landscapes in this captivating exhibition, staring at candid portraits and hoping to learn more of their stories. But for all my fascination with Strauss’ subjects, my grandmother was correct—her photographs are not pretty. Rough, raw and often bleak, they expose forgotten and overlooked neighborhoods and residents, giving us a window into hidden worlds. They can often be disturbing or downright brutal, but it is each image’s honesty and quiet beauty that make Strauss’ work so poignant.
A self-taught photographer and installation artist, Strauss began shooting images after she was given a camera for her 30th birthday. Often compared to Nan Goldin and Diane Arbus because of the intimacy of her work, her photographs illustrate life on the margins of society. She looks for promise in places like South Philadelphia, where she grew up and still lives, and Biloxi, Mississippi during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (“I’m interested in a hopeful quality in adverse conditions,” Strauss explains.) Her portraits are like eavesdropping: Sometimes you hear stories you were better off not knowing. Her landscapes capture the devastation of nature and man within the urban environment; and in her abstractions —disheveled Venetian blinds or a close-up of faded wallpaper in an elevator—we focus on the long-neglected.
Accessibility is very important to Strauss. Though she has also exhibited at The Whitney Museum of Art and Philadelphia’s ICA, she considers it important that a larger and more diverse demographic sees her work. In 2001, Strauss began a photo installation series under the I-95 highway in Philadelphia. For a short period of time every year, she turns this concrete expanse into an urban gallery of sorts, displaying nearly 200 photographs
accompanied by a slideshow. The slideshow is an element that shows up frequently in her installations, the idea being that the viewer catches her images for little more than a fleeting moment, alluding to themes of hope and desire—though Strauss tells me that secretly, she wants people to study her photographs for a good, long while. The “Under I-95″ series is
as much about a social statement as it is about art—everyone, including the Philadelphia Museum, which purchased several of her photographs for their collection, is given the same price tag for a print: $5. “It’s very important for the work to go back into the community where it was made,” Strauss emphasizes.
After becoming privy to the artist’s perspective and the lives that she’s captured, I find it hard to remove myself. I was a guest in these people’s living rooms and Strauss was the host. Even though my grandmother might have been right—her photographs are not pretty—it’s impossible to ignore the strength and heartbreaking truth in her work.