There are photographic projects that become evident of when the photographer is just a visitor, dropping in to take a photo-op, collect some photo-trophies and then soon back home for the evening to spend time with their spouse and kids. With Zoe Strauss’s recent project, America by Zoe Strauss, published by AMMO Books, I quickly understand that these rough and tumble neighborhoods of South Philly is where she lives. She is not a stranger, but a local, calling this area home.
Although there is an emphasis on the South Philadelphia region, Strauss has moved beyond her local borders into other parts of America. Her photographs are predominately of the people she meets, there are the indirect inclusions of the rest of humanity by way of the signs (textual photographs) and broader urban landscapes. We are rarely provided sweeping vistas, but instead we are brought up close and many times uncomfortable. And many of her photographs do make me feel uncomfortable.
I also come away with the feeling that the locations on her journey that she gravitated to and the people she ended up spending time with is where her comfort zone resides. She seems to have a strong empathy for those who are on the edges of society, as she often states that she is not of the mainline straight world. She seems to be able to make personal connections that allow folks to reveal themselves, sometimes graphically such as the woman (below) who unzips her pants and pulls up her blouse to reveal a long surgical scar, while yet standing openly in the street. People seem to relate to her and allow her to come closer, whether to show a tattoo abover their breast or a fresh tattoo on their arm.
I am so unnerved by the photograph of the women, below, who is using a smashed pencil to provide an eye line. For me, the fact that she probably knows the alarming condition of the pencil, but continues to use it is just so unsettling for me. I can only think that this smashed pencil is probably a good metaphor for a difficult life, but this woman has the fortitude, resilance and tenacity to make the best of it and carry on. This might be best way to describe most of Strauss’s intimate portraits, that of a testimony to perseverance and survival.
I also find in Strauss’s photographs a caustic undertone but equally realistic, such as the juxtaposition of the tribute to fallen soldiers which happens to be near some lottery drawing (below). Although these two events are not related, Strauss quickly realized that the combination of these random events creates an even stronger message. The ending text for the next drawing sign really brings it together; Good Luck.
The inclusion of her photographs of text within the book are on many occasions is sheer comic relief. The traces of words removed, crossed out or painted over continue to tell her story. But for these photographs, I do find some subtle humor that reveals our own humanity. This is carried over with her textual captions which take advantage of random textual juxtapositions that occur in everyday life, such as the erased sign “satisfaction guaranteed” that was removed off the side of a building, which the photographs caption states, Satisfaction Guaranteed Removed. Or the sign “Together We Make Dreams Come True” when the sign itself is beat up, worn and dirty on the edges, showing decay and run down at the edges. For me, Strauss has seen that the sign is symbolic of the underlying problem with the ensuing proclamation.
Strauss’s photographs show us a sad portrayal of America, although often gritty, such as the Christmas house, provided below, or confrontational. I still find traces of hope and aspiration, with real people and real situations dealing with the hand that was dealt to them.
What I like about this book are the intimate and revealing photographs of people who have allowed us to meet them, on their own terms, perhaps for just this one moment in time.
The horizontal book is 11 1/4 x 8 1/4″, with 192 pages (unpaged) and 165 color photographs, published by AMMO Books in 2008. The book was was printed and bound in China with average halftone quality. An interesting interview of Zoe Strauss by Steve Crist is provided by means of an introduction, with subsequent vignettes provided by Strauss through the book.
By Douglas Stockdale