BY Octavia Bürgel in EU Reviews | 25 JAN 22
Featured in
Issue 226

LaToya Ruby Frazier's Intimate Portraits of Working-Class Histories

At Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, the artist's photography is a personalized window into the material effects of social inequity

BY Octavia Bürgel in EU Reviews | 25 JAN 22

As a 16-year-old in Braddock, Pennsylvania in the late 1990s, LaToya Ruby Frazier began taking black and white photographs of her family and local surroundings at a time when her native city was plummeting into post-industrial ruin. In the exhibition ‘True Pictures?’ at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, the resulting series, titled ‘The Notion of Family’ (2001–2014) approaches the bleak realities of life in America’s former industrial strongholds with a remarkable degree of intimacy, offering a personalized window into the material effects of social inequity. In Grandma Ruby’s Refrigerator (2007), for instance, a refrigerator towers like an obelisk in the centre of the frame. On all sides of the refrigerator, cooking supplies purchased in bulk from big-name corporations highlight the ways that a systematic inaccessibility to fresh food further marginalizes underprivileged communities across America.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Grandma Ruby, Mom and Me at Mom’s house, 2005, gelatin silver print, 61 × 50.8 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Charlotte Feng Ford Collection

What the work in ‘The Notion of Family’ collectively achieves is difficult to replicate. In her most-cited series, Frazier’s discernment of what to reveal and what to conceal is palpable because it is so personal. By contrast, ‘Et des terrils un arbre s'élèvera’ (And from the coal tips, a tree will rise, 2016–2017), realized while on a residency in Belgium, sees Frazier train her camera on working class communities in Europe. Dominating the first two galleries in the Wolfsburg exhibition, photographs such as Jean-Claude, Silvio, Émile et Antonio, jardin d’Antonio, Flénu, Borniage, 10 Octobre 2016 (Jean-Claude, Silvio, Émile and Antonio, Antonio’s garden, Flénu, Borniage, October 10, 2016), document miners and their widows in the Borniage region, a community formed largely of Turkish migrant workers. Facing a German public, where almost 13% of the nation’s immigrant population has origins in Turkey, it is clear why curator Andreas Beitin chose selections from this series to open the exhibition. But while this series evokes a political discourse familiar to a German audience, it lacks the personal stakes found in Frazier’s early work and adopts a tone that occasionally verges on the voyeuristic.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Jean-Claude, Silvio, Émile et Antonio, jardin d’Antonio, Flénu, Borinage, 10 Octobre 2016, 2016,gelatin silver print, 151.1 × 121.9 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Collection Musée des Arts Contemporains au Grand- Hornu, propriété de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles

Frazier’s most recent body of work on view, ‘The Last Cruze’ (2019) comprises over sixty images and texts narrating the effects of the recent shutdown of General Motors’ Lordstown, Ohio manufacturing plant. In one striking image, Keisha Scales, UAW Local 1714, hugging her best friend and former co-worker Beverly Williams in her living room (22 years in at GM Lordstown Complex, pressroom), Youngstown, OH, 2019’ (2019), two women are locked in a tearful embrace. The composition of the image recalls Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph, ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936). Like Lange and her contemporaries of the depression era, Frazier uses the camera, to quote photographer Gordon Parks, ‘as a weapon’ to expose the systemic failures of the nation’s political structures.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Flint Students and Community Members outside Northwestern High School (est. 1964) awaiting the arrival of President Barack Obama, May 4th 2016, II, 2016, gelatin silver print, 71.1 × 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Gladstone Gallery, Brussels/New York

It seems odd then, to frame Frazier’s practice under the title ‘True Pictures?’, which feels like an indictment of the photographer’s evident political alignments. Applied broadly to Frazier’s work, photographs such as Shea brushing Zion’s teeth with bottled water in her bathroom, Flint, Michigan, 2016/2017, from the series ‘Flint is Family’ (2016), take on a degree of unintended scepticism, unfortunately recreating the American government’s dismissive response to the demands of Flint residents at the outset of the water crisis in April 2014. While doubting the truth value inherent in contemporary photography is a productive and often revealing conceptual exercise, it’s a shame that an exhibition dedicated to telling truth to power is undermined by a misplaced question mark.

True Pictures? LaToya Ruby Frazier is on view at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg until 10 April 2022. It is part of the collaborative project True Pictures? Contemporary Photography from Canada and the USA initiated by Sprengel Museum Hannover.

Main image: LaToya Ruby Frazier, UPMC Professional Building Doctors’ Offices, 2011, gelatin silver print, 50.8 × 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Octavia Bürgel is a writer, editor, photographer and radio DJ. She is based in Berlin.