Photographs by Zoe Strauss. Edited by Zoe Strauss and Steve Crist.
AMMO Books, Los Angeles, 2008. Hardbound. 192 pp., 175 four-color illustrations, 12½x8". $29.95
Zoe Strauss (b. 1970) was given a camera on her 30th birthday and immediately began to shoot photographs around her neighborhood in South Philly. Since then she has received a Pew fellowship (2005), been included in the Whitney Biennial (2006), was named a USA Gund Fellow (2007) and received a major grant from United States Artists. Each May for the last 8 years she has held "Under I-95," an annual exhibition of her work hung on the concrete columns beneath the Interstate highway which runs through the heart of Philadelphia. Strauss differs from most contemporary photographers in her avid embracement of the inherent reproducibility of an image, never editioning her work and selling photocopied prints for $5.00 each. In lieu of maintaining a traditional portfolio website (though she does have one), she has an incredibly active blog which chronicles her working process and acts as a showcase for many hundreds of images. Her first book, America (AMMO, 2008), was just released this week, on Election Day.
Will Steacy and Zoe Strauss spent much of their Election Day together in their mutual home town of Philadelphia, visiting polls, shooting photographs and recording the following interview.
New Tattoo Jorge, Philadelphia, PA. From America by Zoe Strauss, published by AMMO Books, 2008.
Will Steacy: Someone once told me that the most important thing for one's art is life, to live, and it is the hands that exist outside of one's medium that will mold it. You began photographing at 30, what experiences and/or learnings [from] before you picked up a camera have shaped you and your art?
Zoe Strauss: In some ways I feel like it's part of that same thing, it's an integral part of my life, it's really not separate, and in some ways I would prefer it to not be all encompassing; but in truth, my work is really part of my everyday life, it's all in the same package.
WS: How does the familiarity of shooting in your neighborhood in South Philly compare to when you make work on the road, such as in Nevada or a post-Katrina Mississippi? Or is it all the same? Do you approach your subject differently or see things any different from when you are in a new place?
ZS: It's crazy but it does not feel any different to me whatsoever. I don't understand it and I have thought about it for a long time -- I cant figure out why I would have the same feeling of comfort but it's really true, it feels as if there is no difference no matter where I am even though I'll be in a place I have never been before, I honestly have no idea how that is but it's really true.
WS: Some of your subjects seem as though they have had a tough life and that where they are today has not come easy, it has been a fight to get there. Many of your portraits seem to honor that fight, the courage and bravery and celebrate being alive. What attracts you to your subjects? How does the camera function between you and your subject?
ZS: In terms of making a portrait, the camera is the introduction. I approach someone with the intent of making a photograph and what attracts me to the person is intangible, although later on in the edits it seems as if the portraits that have the greatest importance to me, and have the greatest satisfaction, are the ones where I have had some sort of connection with the person, and that almost always involves a connection that can not be articulated -- a sense of pride and joy of being in the world. It doesn't matter what the situation is but there is a connection, without sounding ridiculous or hokey, we are both happy to be alive, and that's the biggest part of it.
Zoe Strauss in her studio on Election Day 2008. Photograph by Will Steacy.
WS: As a woman, does your gender ever play a role in your making a photograph? Does it ever close or open doors? Are there any specific instances you recall when not just your gender but also the gender of your subject impacted for good or bad the photograph?
ZS: I think gender is something that is happening constantly in the world. We are always trying to navigate it and figure out how we interact with people in relation to gender. I think that people generally feel less threatened by a woman, I think that is something that is realistic, and I think that often allows me to go places that would be difficult for a man. I think realistically that it would be a different interaction, I don't know, if I would be like, "Hey dude, come on into my house, woo hoo!" I think in a lot of photographs people respond specifically to the photographer, and because I am a woman I think it is an integral part of it and some of the shots I have, particularly nude shots of men, are ones that are more likely to have happened because I am a woman and it would have been a lot less likely that these guys would have been happy to share their penises [with] a man.
Mummers. From America by Zoe Strauss, published by AMMO Books, 2008. (This photograph was ultimately censored by Chinese authorities and does not appear in the book.)
WS: Like for instance the shot of the Mummers?
ZS: I think there would have been a disconcerting moment of "Why? Why would you want to see this?" if a man was taking the photo. It was a very joyous and loving moment, and part of it was, I am so gay I am not really interested in this, but I kind of love it too because what the hell is going on?! I think it was a moment that would not have been the same had they been interacting with a man.
WS: While piecing together the sequencing and edit of the images in the book, what were some of the underlining stories you needed to tell, and what was that process of making a book like, replacing images you loved for others which you didn't feel so strongly about because they told a better story? Most photographers dream of making a book, perhaps you might shed some light on the experience.
ZS: It is torture. It was so phenomenally painful. It shouldn't be but it just really really was. I had no idea how hard it was to put a book together. I certainly didn't think it would be easy, but a big part of my work is editing and I thought that I would get through it. I was so fucking wrong. It was grueling and extraordinarily difficult. I would go back and forth about the narrative and the balance of the book, the mood, what the juxtapositions say on the page, is the text conversational and not descriptive of the photo but rather of the process, I was losing my fucking mind. And not to say that I didn't love it, I really did, and I couldn't be any more happy that someone gave me the opportunity to make a book, but I was really like, "Oh my god."
Spread from America by Zoe Strauss, published by AMMO Books, 2008.
WS: What was your process of working with the diptychs? Will you do it again?
ZS: I really love it. It's a good format for my work and allows these two photos to have this exchange and in some ways that's how the I-95 project works, as these photos have this movement. It was really so much more difficult than I would have thought and I don't know if I am going to continue to work in that, I would love to, but realistically the placement was as important as each individual photo. There is a photo of a guy with swastikas, and I really love that guy and I want that to go next to the photo of the sign that said "Paris in jail" because I felt that was a WWII reference and a historical strain, but I felt like I couldn't have those two next to each other on the basis that it was implied this guy had gotten the tattoos in jail and it changed the meaning of what it means to be in prison. The placement of that one was very difficult for me because I knew those two had to be close to each other and I didn't know how they were going to relate to each other and it was really obvious that the mood would change dramatically if it was on the opposite page or next to it. And it turns out that most of them were like that.
WS: America has gone down a wild road since 9-11 and many things have changed. It seems you have been right there shooting the whole journey. Your work addresses and examines a wide range of issues from the violence, drugs and poverty that plague our inner cities, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the effects of huge corporations, the abandonment of local jobs, to the disenfranchised, among others. Are you a messenger? Through a real and direct look at the local, what do you hope to reveal about the national?
ZS: Will, you are killing it with these great questions! I think that by talking about the local it tells more about the national than something generic or something too broad reaching. The specific and local allow people to connect with it much more than something that's over-reaching. That to me is very central to my work because I feel like it's the personal interactions that are very important in terms of the portraits, it's this one-on-one, a personal interaction as opposed to a de-saturation which has happened within the last ten years of this overarching discussion of motion after 9-11. My interest is to show people these moments and have them work out what that means in terms of the larger picture of nationalism, and what it means to be American.
Spread from America by Zoe Strauss, published by AMMO Books, 2008.
WS: A selection of the words or phrases that appear in book include: "We love having you here," "If you break the skin you must come in," "Together we make dreams come true," "Everything is not $1," "Get back up again," "Allied forces," "Good luck," "The change is forever," "Mom were ok," "Report suspect activity," "Keep the fuck out," "He shoud just disiper some wheir," "How do I look," "Friday is payday," "Most we feared," "White trash," "Stay alive," "Ower," and "We will win." These images are very important to me -- I see them as the chorus, a voice that guides us along, simultaneously allowing for reflection but also expanding on ideas. Signs and words have a long history in photography and today in a consumer society [where] we are flashed with signs and words nonstop. What do these signs mean to you? When you isolate them within the confines of your composition you are able to give them your own meaning, what are your intentions here and how does this relate to your sculptural background?
ZS: I think there are a number of things that go into the text photos for me. One being that I am very conscious of the history of photography -- it's important to me to reference it and to talk about how photography is still a burgeoning art; it's important to pay homage to these specific forms that have essentially just occurred and which we are still working through. Another big part of it in terms of the I-95 project and the installation is that I want people who walk through it to get a sense they are reading these images. So the literal act of reading is something that is really important in moving people back and forth when seeing the images, it creates a different way of seeing. Personally I am very drawn to text, I am interested in reading and language, I am interested in more than one meaning with the text and how we can make our own meanings out of these things. Many of them are incomplete statements but they are solid and they say enough for a person reading it to create their own narrative without telling them the whole story.
WS: In the computer era, it is interesting that you do not have an updated website, instead you have a very active blog and a Flickr account. You have been blogging for some time now, why do you blog -- what does it mean to you and your work?
ZS: I could care less about my website, I feel like those images are very static. The blog is about the transparency of my process, the many things that go into making the photos, how my life is an integral part of my work and they both constantly inform one another, they are not separate. The blog is an important aspect of the I-95 project [as I wanted] to have transparency throughout the course of the whole project. I feel it's important to see that these images are not made in a vacuum, that they come from a process. I often feel like there is a separation when it comes to fine art and when the finished image is presented it is something that is very removed from what the actual moment was. It is an important part of my process [to show] the background of how this image came about and a record of my train of thought.
Jehovah's Witnessess, Philadelphia, PA. From America by Zoe Strauss, published by AMMO Books, 2008.
WS: You seem to wear your heart on your sleeve, this attitude and lifestyle is very much a part of your work. For 8 years now, every May, you have been showing your work on columns under I-95 and then allowed people to rip them down and keep them. In several weeks you will have your second solo show at Silverstein Gallery in New York and your book America will hit bookstores nationwide. From posting prints on a cement column under the highway to the walls of a premier New York art gallery, your work has seen both ends of the spectrum. How do these transitions impact your work? Does the environment or setting in which the image is placed impact how it is viewed? Does an image change meaning when Joe the Septa bus driver looks at it on his way home from work under the highway to when Joe the investment banker looks at it in a Chelsea art gallery at the opening reception?
ZS: I think context is extraordinarily important and the idea of moving these images about in the world changes significantly what they mean. Where it is presented and how it is presented and who it is presented to certainly change the meaning of the photo. I think about the audience a lot and who is seeing it. The bottom line is that I-95 is the central project and everything else [is a] detail of that. I have no hesitation about moving the images out into the world as I see fit because they all come back to the central project. While these images can tell multiple narratives the I-95 project is always the main focus. I want my work to be everywhere. I don't have any hesitation about the work being in a gallery or selling it for a lot of money as long as it's un-editioned. And there is absolutely a difference between the two, there is a different feel as well. Each location is site specific and setting it up and the idea of the work being looked at as opposed to having an exchange with the portrait is something I am very conscious of, particularly in a gallery. A gallery is a different feeling, it is about commerce, and less about the movement that occurs with I-95, so in terms of moving the images to Silverstein or any of the other places I have had shows, it is based on my feeling of how the images will work in the space, who the audience will be, how the work translates in terms of how it talks about what I was thinking about that specific moment while simultaneously being as true as I can to the moment with the portrait specifically. It's up to me, I try to use my best judgment in terms of how I remember the interaction and how I feel this can be presented in a way that is true to the moment.
WS: What are some of the rewards of your work being able to reach such a large audience?
ZS: My core audience is people who can walk to I-95, but I am thrilled to be able to move the work about in the world and have it be seen. One of the things about photography is it is accessible in terms of people understanding how the image was made -- they themselves could make the same image and the fact that photography is something that many of us have in our own lives to record important moments. To me, that's the way photography is intended to be, it's not meant to be precious, it's meant to be movable.
Zoe Strauss taking pictures on Election Day 2008. Photograph by Will Steacy.
Photograph by Zoe Strauss.
WS: Why did you choose to release your book in conjunction with the election? What does this election mean to you?
ZS: I feel like the Bush administration has devastated the United States. Most of the images in the book were taken within the last 8 years, and most of those within the last year. We are all thinking right now about what it means to be American and what America means right now. There have been a tremendous number of shifts that have occurred since Bush and 9-11. America's place in the world has changed -- as well as how we view ourselves. It is a time for reflection and I hope that this can be a part of that. I genuinely feel like it's a time to think about what's involved in being an American, and what America means.
WS: Do you think photography can provide the ability to create change?
ZS: I think that art provides the ability to make change. I think there are different means at getting at reflection. Photography as a medium is able to provide people with ideas. In the last couple of years there has been such a shift in technology and the access that people have. I think the Abu Ghraib pictures are possibly the most important photos of the last 50 years in some ways because it has changed the way we have access to images, and who makes the images and where they go. That being said, I think the medium has a lot of different possibilities. In terms of art, there is a possibility to provide someone with an image that will cause them to have a shift in their thinking, not necessarily to change their thinking but the possibility to think about things in a slightly different way. I don't think that is realistic all the time, but that's what I work toward. It's not always successful, but it's what I am plugging away at.
WS: Perhaps this is a sore subject but America was published in China, and censored!! I think that is brilliant. I see it as an extension of the images and themes in the book. What are your thoughts?
ZS: It is a sore subject! When I first heard it was going to be published in China I was like, I don't know and then when I looked at the photographs I thought that makes sense, it makes perfect sense. At one point I actually wanted to rename the book, America printed in China. I really went back and forth for a long time about that. I felt very strongly that that was an important part of this book -- the loss of industry and outsourcing jobs along with the idea of a different sort of internationalism that is happening now. It's a reality that's both unavoidable and difficult, the complexity of it is tremendous. When the book was censored I was of course furious, but the more I thought about it I see the book as a work in progress, it's a part of the I-95 project and it seemed to me to be indicative of exactly what I was talking about. While I really regret not having those images in the book and I think it detracts in some ways, in terms of the big picture, the story that goes with that tells more than those two images could have told, and that's well worth it to me. The book doesn't mention this or talk about it, but personally I couldn't indicate a performance that is more telling of contemporary America than it being printing in China and being censored. It's less money to print it in China and ship it to America and then ship back the empty containers to China. My ideals and ideas were at odds with this, but simultaneously, for the sake of telling the story I couldn't go wrong with it.
Titanic, Philadelphia, PA. From America by Zoe Strauss, published by AMMO Books, 2008.
WS: The last image in the book, the message reads, "We will win." What does this mean for you?
ZS: That's it! We will win! That's what it means! I am a very optimistic woman -- I have great joy and love in the world of both being alive and bizarrely because of my own political leanings, I am very proud to be an American. I am very proud to be a part of the political process and I have a great sense of loyalty and pride in place for both Philadelphia and America. I have faith that we will be ok, that we are going to make it through.
WS: For the past couple of years now I have been keeping this list in my head comprised of projects I would commission specific photographers to do if someone ever put me in charge of a foundation or something. I would assign you to make a film that tells your favorite Philadelphia story. What would be the story you tell?
ZS: Two years ago my lady and I were driving to the Oregon Diner, and you know how sometimes there are just a lot things happening at the same time? Well, I get a lot of pleasure out of this weird perfect storm of "What the fuck!" moments. So, as we were pulling in, there was the guy outside in a leather Scarface jacket and on the back it had a full airbrushed portrait of Scarface, and said Scarface, and was studded, and had rhinestones. I was just like, "I don't even know what to do, I love it so much!" And then we went in and sat down, and there was this woman across from us who started to talk to us immediately, and then came over and slid into the booth next to me. The booth was a tiny one person booth and she was in my face saying "I forgot my jersey for the Eagles game" and she had to do all this stuff for the game, blah blah. Our waitress took a while to come over and when she finally did, this woman finally moved back to her own seat. But then, these two women behind us started yelling, "What the fuck, why is it taking so long, it doesn't take 40 minutes to cook eggs, I can't believe this." So the waitress turned around and said, "I'm pregnant, I need someone else to carry the food over," and they said, "I don't give a shit if you are pregnant." So the manager came over and tried to tell them the waitress was pregnant, then one of the women said, "You suck as a manager," and then the manager said, "Well, you suck as a customer." It was so ridiculous. The woman across from us was whispering, "It didn't take 40 minutes why are they saying that?" Then finally our food is served and the woman across from us who forgot her Eagles jersey is still talking. Then the two women in back of us, who are South Philly Italian, get up and they are midgets! And they go up to the register at the same time and [it was] just so surreal. So they are at the register continuing to complain and scream, and then they finally leave. After they leave, we tell the manager, who is this South Philly lady who has real short hair that's dyed red but is almost purple, that actually our waitress was totally fine. Then she grabbed me in a head-lock and kissed me and said, "Yooz are real nice people!" Then we get up to leave, and there is this guy Skill-Craning outside, which is one of those arcade things you drop a quarter in and try to get a toy with the arm crane, and the guy is spending like two billion dollars on trying to get a toy that is a piece of crap. We walked past him and kept going down the ramp and then the guy starts screaming, "Hey! Hey!" and we turn around the guy is holding fuzzy dice, "I got it!" It was the greatest day ever. How unbelievable was that? I really just didn't know what to do. It was just a tsunami of unbelievableness. So, we went to Ikea and got frozen yogurt and went right home.
Will Steacy (b. 1980) is a photographer and writer based in New York. His photographs have been featured in numerous gallery and museum exhibitions across the country. He is the recipient of many awards including the 2008 Tierney Fellowship and his work has been published in Harper's, New York Magazine, The Paris Review, Newsweek and Russian Esquire, among others. Steacy received a B.F.A in Photography from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and he is represented by Michael Mazzeo Gallery in New York.