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Issue 208

LaToya Ruby Frazier Puts a Face on the US Labour Crisis

The artist’s moving portraits of ‘unallocated’ auto workers in Lordstown, Ohio, on view at the Renaissance Society, celebrate the power of unions as job losses hit US manufacturing

BY Ian Bourland in Reviews , US Reviews | 18 NOV 19

During the late summer of 2019, some thirty General Motors plants were idled across the US during the strike of 49,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union – the largest such stoppage in half a century. At stake were matters of equity for new workers, better wages and the security of health coverage. The American auto industry and its supply chains are crucial to the economies of the ‘rust belt’ states of the Midwest, and at the centre of debates around free trade, offshoring, and the future of labour in the country. In a bargain that ended the strike, UAW assented to the shuttering of three plants, including the hulking Lordstown Assembly in eastern Ohio. The latter has been in operation since the middle of last century and, until March 2019, produced the compact Chevrolet Cruze.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Kesha 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

The photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier was on hand as the last Cruze was assembled and later transported to a dealership in nearby Boardman, Ohio. In 2018, the year the 3,000 members of the local UAW chapters 1112 and 1714 merged, Frazier began a larger project of collaboration and advocacy for the workers. She has dedicated her current exhibition of 67 photographs and one video work at the Renaissance Society and a portfolio for The New York Times to raising awareness about the imminent decimation of a community and telling the stories of a place that once exemplified the ‘American Dream’.

Raised in Braddock, Pennsylvania – a mere two hours down the road – Frazier’s work has long engaged with intractable capital flows and their effects on the fortunes of the working class. Her early work was primarily autobiographical, envisioned as an intergenerational collaboration with her family in a historically black community near Pittsburgh. More recently, she relocated for a series to Flint, Michigan, a community predominantly of colour still recovering from a lead-tainted water supply. It can be tempting to think of Frazier’s work through the lens of race, but her critique is far more subtle, and tracks the knotty confluence of gender and class as well. A cardinal strength of her work, then and now, is its capacity to ground abstract processes of accumulation and divestment through local and personal narratives.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Louis Robinson, JR., UAW Local 1714, recording secretary at UAW Local 1112 Reuther Scandy Alli union hall, (34 years in at GM Lordstown Complex, die setter), Lordstown, OH, 2019

This is especially true in ‘The Last Cruze’, which seems to argue that, first and foremost, economic security is fundamental to our social fabric. The storied American middle class – one that crosscuts race and sex – was forged in the unassuming union halls and assembly lines that Frazier so assiduously documents. There are intimate domestic scenes interspersed with striking portraits, such as Frances Turnage of the UAW 1112 Women’s Committee, and arresting candid shots, like that of Kesha Scales (UAW 1714) tearfully hugging a co-worker.

The legacy of the late Allan Sekula is evident here, in Frazier’s unsentimental, crisp execution and her inclusion of lengthy textual elements alongside each image. Detailed captions recount the subjects’ positions and their time on the job. Paragraph after paragraph tells their stories, bearing witness to bonds forged in the workplace, the neighbourhood and the union. They point to the reciprocity and generosity of working-class communities, and to the alienating greed of their corporate counterparts. All this is shown on an array of 21 cadmium-red supports, which evoke the machinic arrays of the factory floor; spare fluorescent lighting and darkened windows suggest a form of industrial sublime. Such theatrics are not necessary, but do work to de-aestheticize the photographs themselves, which are mounted as unframed triptychs.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Cindy Higinbotham and Monet Hostutler, best friends and banner carriers in Lordstown High School band room, 2019

More compelling still is the exhibition’s programming, which includes a conversation with the great theorist of neoliberalism, David Harvey, a marathon panel discussion with members of the Local’s Women’s Committee, and an information-rich gallery guide. Many contemporary artists lamely lay claim to the mantle of activism. But for Frazier, it’s clearly more than a buzzword. In such timely and rigorous work, she plainly deploys her ever-growing influence in the service of others. In the past, Frazier has placed herself in a deep lineage of socially engaged photographers such as Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange and Carrie Mae Weems. Now, there can be no doubt that she is her generation’s undisputed – and much needed – standard bearer.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, ‘The Last Cruze’, is on view at The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, until 1 December 2019.

Main image: LaToya Ruby Frazier, ‘LaToya Ruby Frazier: The Last Cruze,’ 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and The Renaissance Society, Chicago  

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).