Taking Photo Exhibits To The Streets
Zoe Strauss is not really a photographer. She sees herself primarily as an installation artist. About 12 years ago, someone gave her a camera for her birthday, and she used it for a project called Under I-95.
She would take photos in her South Philadelphia neighborhood and display them there, too — on concrete columns supporting an interstate overpass. She wanted her images to be outside, in an urban setting, at home.
That idea grew into her one-woman Philadelphia Public Art Project, which puts the pictures back into the community, under freeways and, most recently, on massive billboards around the city. And now it's not just her neighborhood that will see the photos.
Strauss' work has earned her a Pew fellowship, a spot in the Whitney Biennial, and most recently, the billboard photos — 54 of them — were part of a mid-career exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But they were not advertisements for the exhibit, she's sure to emphasize.
"Just photos," she says. "No text or logos. I want people to take a lot of questions away from the billboards and make their own narrative about them."
One billboard shows the close-up of the face of a heavyset woman with short, curly hair, on a field of sky blue.
"So, I live at 13th and Dickinson," Strauss explains. "This woman lives across from me, Antoinette Conti. It's just neighbors on the billboard."
This South Philly neighborhood is changing. Conti, a second-generation Italian-American, is the old guard: She has lived here almost a half-century. Italians like Conti are being replaced by Mexican-Americans and Asian-Americans.
Six weeks later, Strauss replaced the billboard photo of Conti with a photo of one of her newer neighbors, Fernando Trevino. In effect, the billboard was edited, like a movie — like consecutive frames on a strip of celluloid — one image replaced by another, and a third meaning emerges.
Strauss points to the top of the billboard, where you can see clustered spires of a cellphone tower behind it. "When you step back a bit," she says, it "looks like a crown that's on top of the billboard. This is 'La Corona' ... 'crown' in both Italian and Spanish."
"It breaks out of the museum," says photographer and writer Allan Sekula, who was involved in a billboard art project last year in Los Angeles. "She brings the whole city into it with the billboards. It's a giant theatrical operation using photos as the tokens."
Sekula says the strength of Strauss' pictures is not how each stands on its own, but how they fit into the larger system of interrelated meanings.
"It's partly a cumulative effect, and more than one image," he says.
These images come from tough neighborhoods populated by damaged people: bad teeth, gunshot wounds, an arm scarred by a hundred tiny cuts; ear lobes split open where earrings used to be. Boys flipping over abandoned mattresses on the sidewalk. Some of this might seem exploitative. Strauss says she's just trying to connect with people — it's coming out of an interaction.
"I'm not looking for one thing," she explains. "Just a moment in which there's going to be an interesting exchange."
Since she started to take photos, Strauss' career has taken off. But the pictures she takes are just people she meets, and things she finds, on the street.
"I'm drawn to people with a strong sense of self. That's the strongest thread through the portraiture," she says.
After 10 weeks, her images are gone and the billboards have reverted back to what they were. That enormous picture of Antoinette, which became Fernando, is now an ad for a local auto body shop, and its meaning has shifted yet again.
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