Zoe Strauss wasn’t trained in photography, but a little over a decade ago she picked up a camera and began to make art out of her world. Being self-taught has offered Strauss a freedom of idea, not only within her work, but also in how she presents it to others. Despite this unfettered style, Strauss is well versed in the history of art and photography and is innately aware that the raw and the elegant need not contradict each other.
Generally, a photograph by Strauss is a portrait, a fragment of urban architecture, or a text-based image. Aware of photography’s bad reputation for impersonating reality, she is always careful to call attention to the frame. This allows the viewer to see her subjects from a distance, and to watch an image oscillate from representative picture to graphic composition and back. It’s no mean feat to channel Walker Evans and Franz Kline at the same time.
Strauss is often a part of the communities that appear in her work, and even when she’s not, her handling of the camera and the encounter between photographer and subject preserve the dignity of the people she photographs. She gives her human subjects control over what the camera sees, so that what might appear as weakness or an appeal to voyeurism instead reads as intimacy. Strauss attributes this to her desire to create a relationship between herself and the people she photographs, even if that relationship only lasts for a few moments. In turn, she attempts to use the resulting images to connect with her viewers.
Seven years ago, Strauss embarked on a ten-year project to bring her art into her community. Every year, during the first weekend in May, she selects over two hundred photographs and Spray Mounts them onto the square cement pillars supporting two city blocks worth of Interstate 95 over Front and Mifflin Streets in South Philadelphia. Just for a few hours, Strauss creates her own museum deep within the neighborhood that is both her home and the source of much of her work.
There is a wonder and irony about seeing these everyday scenes imposed back onto their place of origin as something new, providing an opportunity for the abject, the accidental, and the overlooked to be beautiful and reflective. Remarkably, this does not translate into exploitation, a feat that Strauss attributes to her respect of her subjects and the simple fact that she does not seek to document. The project reminds you that, at its best, photography is like magic, turning ordinary sights, words, and people into art.
The I-95 project has been an anchor for Strauss. It has provided structure and constancy, sticking with Strauss year to year as photographs once intended for an overpass appear in prestigious galleries, museums, and publications. She won a coveted Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 2005, which led to inclusion in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s prestigious Biennial the following year.
Despite the degree of manipulation now available to the digital photographer and perfectionist and she is both Strauss abides by strict self-imposed sanctions. She won’t do anything to her photographs that can’t be done in a darkroom. Cropping, straightening, and messing with the contrast are acceptable, but using Photoshop to airbrush away the tiny corner of a sign is out even if it means that an image she otherwise loves must be abandoned. Strauss won’t compromise her innate sense of composition for even the tiniest infractions. She feels that the freedoms she experiences as an artist and a human being carry the responsibility to create and abide by her own boundaries.