Comments/Context: While LaToya Ruby Frazier's photographs have found their way into a number of important group shows and biennials in recent years, this show finally offers an opportunity to see a larger selection of her recent work in one place. Frazier's penetrating black and white images of her family and the surrounding community of Braddock, PA, feel at first glance like a throwback to a style of concerned social documentary from decades earlier. But this is really only the first layer of a complex multi-pronged exploration, with interior still lifes, portraits of her mother and aging grandparents, and unflinching self-portraits added to the mix, making her investigations much closer than arm's length, more intimate and personal. With a further element of archival research and the related study of collective and individual memory, her photographs come together in a satisfyingly interleaved whole, touching on repeated themes from a variety of angles.
Frazier's images in and around Braddock capture a depressing sense of decay and inattention. Overgrown greenery covers boarded up buildings and chokes the remaining trees, smoky factories sit idle, and the local hospital is demolished into a pile of rubble. The once prosperous steel industry of Andrew Carnegie is a faint memory, leaving behind the ghostly shell of its prior glory, along with plenty of toxic leftovers, environmental damage, and jobless workers. The fact that a tavern is left standing like a stage set amid the crushed cement of the old hospital is a quiet testament to the trade-offs this community has been forced to make.
But Frazier isn't content to document the struggles of this place from afar; the best of her pictures track her own extended family as it is pushed and pulled by disease, poverty, and a lack of options. Abstract problems are given real human faces, as Grandma Ruby cares for her ailing husband, travels to the hospital, arranges her collection of dolls, and ultimately becomes painfully frail herself. The wearying force of the entire situation comes through poignantly as Grandma Ruby dies, her formal wake and her now empty recliner equally dispiriting. Frazier's images of her mother tell a different tale of trapped endurance, one of cramped apartments, dead end jobs, boyfriends, surgeries, and Red Cross blankets; there is little joy in her face, but plenty of determined, supportive resolve. When seen together, the three generations of women remind us of the scale and duration of these fraying communal issues, of intractable problems passed down through the years and strong women trying hard to find ways to make the best of it.
While Frazier's portrait of her family and hometown is certainly disheartening, there is never of feeling of giving up. These are hard hitting, honest pictures, but they leave you with a sense of quiet tenacity, where outrage is joined with practical making do. The issues she depicts are entirely specific but broadly universal, showing just how closely the complex well being of local citizens is tied to the often overlooked historical and intergenerational roots of the community in which they live.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
- Artist site (here)
- Features/Reviews: New York Times (here), New Yorker (here)
- Interview: Art in America (here)