Zoe Strauss’s most interesting work may be her most abstract — pictures of construction materials, earth moving machines, geometry of interiors and exterior façades, lights in a night sky. But it is easy to see why critical attention is mostly directed toward her man-in-the-street images. She captures with uncanny precision the psychoses and traumas, sometimes jubilant, of the harrowed and haunted underclass. While there may be an aura of celebration in some of the direct and jaunty portraits she takes, ultimately a vaunted sense of ego captured photographically cannot transcend an obvious underlying marginality.
Zoe Strauss: 10 Years at the International Center of Photography (ICP) is a selection of works from an original exhibition organised by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is the summation of a project Ms. Strauss originally conceived as a decade long sojourn of visual narration. Operating as a process of image making and annual public exhibitions, the project was early on, according to its historians, a festive cultural “happening” in Philadelphia where a majority of the work was taken. Strauss’s social and pictorial inquiry eventually led her to travel the United States, and Europe as well. And photographs taken outside Philadelphia are included in the show.
The exhibition opens with a photograph Strauss took in Spain (Woman Showing Bird, Madrid, Spain (2009). It is an elderly woman with a question in her face who invited Strauss to her apartment. In the picture, the subject holds out a frozen bird just taken from the freezer. The bird used to be a pet and since she could not bear to part with it when it died, she preserved it.
This quality of the bizarre, the tragic and the macabre emerges consistently throughout the show. It is a sensibility hovering below the threshold of almost wild humour, a humour that does not emerge because the seriousness of the subject matter suppresses it.
Less well known than Strauss’s iconic Daddy Tattoo, Philadelphia (2004) is a portrait of the same subject, still young, some years later after what must have been a serious physical altercation (Monique Showing Black Eye, Philadelphia, 2006). It is noteworthy that Monique still made up her face with make-up, although less so. Soon after the second photo, in her real life beyond portraits and art exhibitions, Monique died.
Although the exhibition also includes well composed portraits of children who seem serene or happy (Wearing White T-Shirt, Philadelphia, 2009) and others in what appear to be real moments of play or catharsis (Ken and Don, Las Vegas, 2007), there is in the experience of viewership no release from the tensions and contradictions at hand.
An obvious contradiction is the act of viewing — a quite possibly intentional layered satire on the objectivity of the gaze. It is first directed at the subject through the camera lens, and then again through the eyes of the viewing audience. Someone’s awful moments are captured and then examined while hung to a wall. At play within this tension is an idea, carried forward through current critical attention to Strauss’s work, that the subjects invite the gaze in a request or command for attention which might also (hopefully?) be accompanied with respect.
A palpable tension is that of the poverty which operates as a petri dish for the action within most images and scenes. It is the real subject of the exhibition. Almost every image operates as if it is a new outcropping of a chemical reaction in the laboratory of our voyeurism, ignorance and disdain.
If the viewer is at all sensitive, Zoe Strauss: 10 Years might be a vicious assault on the senses. It may be a reasonable response to the images to cry, or to move uneasily toward the doors in quest of a rapid escape. What the images of back and front street urban life may lack in delicacy they more than make up for in poignant social realism. One “gets” Ms. Strauss’s point, often told with lurid irony. And although that point is an insistent proposal rather than a monotonous visual incantation, it is perhaps the more lasting because it is offered metaphorically and palpably.
The juxtapositions of built environment, human drama and the often uncannily suggestive and mostly dilapidated remnants of the media, signage and advertising reveal an odd world of carnage and an existence so damaging as to mesmerise both the viewer and the viewed. But uniquely, within this fantasy land of distortion, viewer and subject can merge, if not uncomfortably. Like good British comedy, subject is permitted to become object within the realm of the absurd.
Within her portraiture, including her urban landscapes and interiors, this may be Ms. Strauss’s most lucrative talent — the ability to humanise an inhumane paradigm by exploiting its most visceral edges. If the revelation of a certain kind of life through an oeuvre of images is intended to touch a nerve it succeeds, even if every single image on its own may not. As a body of work Zoe Strauss: 10 Years exists reliably if not quixotically as a conceptual machine. It steadily delivers certain kinds of ideas about society, self, place and relationship without becoming mundane or pedantic.
Zoe Strauss: 10 Years, 4 October until 19 January, International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036. www.icp.org
1. Zoe Strauss, We Will Win, Las Vegas, 2004. International Center of Photography, Purchase, with funds from the ICP Acquisitions Committee, 2013.