Magazine article Artforum International

Zoe Strauss Philadelphia Museum of Art

Magazine article Artforum International

Zoe Strauss Philadelphia Museum of Art

Article excerpt

The photographs in Zoe Strauss's recent retrospective read like a photo-essay without the text. Her portrait subjects--glaring or shy, rail thin or obese, scarred or bleeding, partying or parading--are mostly from around Philadelphia. Her landscapes offer up empty parking lots, terse signage, insulting graffiti, and glimpses of the Gulf Goast region after Katrina and the BP-Deepwater Horizon spill. Other images are lyrical abstractions or sweeps of some allover pattern found in nature or in the city.

At first glance, Strauss's images seem to fall headlong into every trap that the history of photography since the Progressive Era has set: exploitation of the suffering person, romanticization of the postindustrial landscape, voyeurism of the lower classes, and so on. Looking at Monique Garbone, who appears in two very different images--first pregnant, heavily made-up, and gazing sternly sideways into the camera (Daddy Tattoo, 2004), and later savagely beaten (Monique Showing Black Eye, 2006)--the viewer might feel discomfort, revulsion, alarm, curiosity, pity, and no doubt a selfish relief not to be in Garhone's shoes. Wasn't this why Martha Rosier left human subjects out of The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75, to avoid redoubling their victimization and reinforcing what she called the "connoisseurship of the tawdry"? And didn't Allan Sekula develop extended photo-essays to establish a realism rooted in everyday facts rather than social generalities?

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Strauss refuses to package her photos with text, in order to suggest that neither an image nor an image-plus-caption can tell a whole story. She reintroduces the human subject to "skid row" but juxtaposes her portraits with shots of unidentifiable oceans and unspecified fireworks so that the viewer is struck by the dissonance of the real and the romantic.

A beloved figure here in her hometown, Strauss has built a broad community-based audience over the past decade. Before turning to the camera in 2000, she made ephemeral public artworks--usable chalkboard murals on abandoned buildings, a New Year's party at CVS for employees working the midnight shift--and from 2001 to last year, she held an annual exhibition under 1-95, hanging $5 prints on the broad pillars of the overpass. …

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