Philadelphia is a troubled place, perennially on the verge of unravelling. Once the nation’s capital, the city has struggled for many decades with violent crime and rising poverty. I’ve heard it called ‘Killadelphia’, a reference to the average rate of nearly one homicide a day. The picture, at times, is bleak.
Zoe Strauss’s exhibition of photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art reacts to the city’s social conditions with a blunt and unfeigned sensibility. Curated by Peter Barberie, ‘Ten Years’ – described by Strauss as ‘an epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life’ – is amongst the most successful attempts in contemporary social documentary work I’ve seen in a long time. In fact, in a sea of abstract, lens-less photography shows, it’s the only attempt I’ve seen in a long time. Strauss’s camera is – for better or worse – her means, not her ends; she wields it with such willful, naïve mania that it’s hard not to be persuaded by her efforts.
Until a decade ago, Strauss, a college drop-out, worked as a nanny and a housecleaner. The Philadelphia native and self-described ‘lesbian anarchist’ took up photography at the age of 30, after which time she began to exhibit her images under the I-95 freeway (which runs on the outskirts of her home neighbourhood in South Philadelphia). Once a year, Strauss mounted shows on the concrete pillars and sold photocopied prints for five dollars each. More installation than exhibition, the strategy was intrepid and profoundly counter-institutional. The I-95 shows established Strauss as a member, rather than a tourist, of the vast, underrepresented population that she photographs. In a similarly inclusive spirit, Strauss is holding office hours in the museum twice a week throughout the exhibition, where, with an appointment, anyone can engage her in conversation.
Strauss is a successful social documentarian because she often breaks the formula of social documentary. Though the majority of her photographs are conventionally straightforward in style and content, she occasionally flirts with fine art photography – borrowing studied tropes from Walker Evans, William Eggleston and Nan Goldin, among others. Strauss’s strangest photographs confuse all sense of depth and orientation. For example, in Chandelier, Springfield, PA (2009) she double exposes (or is it a reflection?) a floating chandelier and a cloud-filled blue sky, and in Nick’s Pizza, Philadelphia (2009), Strauss limits the frame to a monochromatic, putrid-green wall-joint. Reviewing an exhibition of documentary work in a fine art museum can be challenging, and Strauss, to her credit, only complicates the task by confusing the terms and standards of both practices. Formally, I’m obligated to report that the prints are less than perfect, and the portraits too uncomplicated. However, to critique this photographer within the bounds of formalism would ultimately miss the point: what Strauss lacks in the way of photographic mastery, she makes up for in the poetics of committed activism.
Distinct from the photographs in the exhibition, Strauss’s works occupy 54 textless billboards around Philadelphia. They are, without doubt, the strongest component of the endeavour. From portraits of city inhabitants placed in their own neighbourhoods to images of the lapping Pacific Ocean overlooking the polluted Schuylkill River, the billboards are thoughtfully curated, the images site-specific. It is an astute strategy, not dissimilar from Strauss’s earlier I-95 shows: by locating the photographs on overlooked spaces within communities that, she would argue, co-authored the images, she has managed to thwart an institutional system that otherwise had the potential to delegitimize her promise.
Still, in a show depicting those below the poverty line in Philadelphia, many of them black, the press preview was surprisingly pale. In fact, Desiree, a museum guard, was one of the only people of colour that I spotted. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a largely pre-modern institution, with vast decorative arts and European painting collections; I began to wax at the thought that perhaps Strauss’s work could not effectively function outside of the bounds of the freeway underpass (the show’s title was changed, at the last minute, from ‘Under the I-95’ to ‘Ten Years’ to appeal to a broader audience), or otherwise immersed in the city streets. However, the exhibition’s penultimate photograph, of hurriedly sprayed graffiti, caught my eye. It read, perfectly: ‘If you are reading this, fuck you.’ It was Strauss’s smartest, and darkest, moment.