Zoe Strauss is a self-taught photography-based installation artist. She lives and works in Philadelphia where she was born (at Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first), and with the exception of a brief sojourn in Nevada, where she was raised. Strauss comes from a close-knit family. Her parents both worked a variety of jobs before her father, who took the family to Nevada where his family worked in the casino business, took his own life. The family moved back to Philadelphia and in with her grandparents.
Not surprisingly Strauss’s work deals with the chance of people’s lives. Her candid, powerful street portraits have been described by Roberta Smith in the New York Times as “not without tenderness, but their harsh, unblinking force is a bit like a punch in the face. ” The aspect of America that Americans don’t want to see. I first discovered Strauss’s work randomly on Flickr, where she posts almost daily, then I found her blog, and then, quite by accident, I found myself at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia last summer, where her work was shown as a commissioned Ramp Project.
Strauss’s work is striking. In the tradition of Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, and Nan Goldin she gets into the world of her subjects. She is interested in “how we move around with the choices we are presented with,” specifically those with “limited choices. What do we opt to do,” she asks, “and how does chance play into that? How does luck and other circumstances move us in a variety of directions…” These questions resonate in her photographs, candid, emotionally rich, completely empathetic and unsentimental.
An avid blogger and involved citizen, Strauss recently completed a film project with a group of eight at-risk youth titled If You Break The Skin which you can see a trailer of here . As the New Yorker points out: “This is not America the Beautiful, and Strauss wants us to know it as intimately as she does .” And she generally makes that possible, taking her art out Under the 95 Ramp and selling photocopied prints at the end of the day for $5. each. She has recently been back to Las Vegas, where among other fabulous photos (reminiscent of Alec Soth’s Niagara series on view at the Gagosian recently ) she returned with one of herself riding a grizzly bear. She later explains the origins of that photo. Zoe Strauss and I recently had coffee at Philly Java on 4th & Lombard where she refused to let me buy her a coffee—her independent fuel of choice in her city of choice.
SQ: You are a Philadelphian. You have enormous pride.
ZS: Yes. I love the city. I love it. It’s non-stop.
SQ: How do you interact with the city?
ZS: I lived in a number of different places in the city. I have an active interest in how it was shaped, how it was formed, how it changes and shifts. It’s fascinating to me. I have great affection for it even in the most difficult circumstances. I’m interested in the whole picture.
SQ: So you must know the city, its layers of development, the stories…is there a particular place that interests you?
ZS: It’s wherever I am at the moment. But, in terms of my own interest, I’m interested in how neighborhoods evolve and what it means for the city on the whole and what it means for the United States on the whole… Sometimes literally and sometimes as a metaphor but it’s always interesting how it’s shifting.
ZS: Sometimes tremendously…like right now it’s a very distressing shift. It’s been a very difficult last two or three years.
SQ: In South Philly? In the city?
ZS: Yah, I’ve noticed it in South Philly, Kensington and North Philly especially. All of those places. There is a different level of desperation, a different level of mean-spiritedness that comes back to, very literally, a tension that seems to have literally filtered down from the Bush-Administration. And I know that sounds grandiose, but it really feels like it comes from this specific climate in the United States, and it’s just been boiling down to this…disregard for human life. The need for wealth. A lack of real jobs, of real opportunities. It’s manifested itself as real, not just “oh that’s a shame.” It has impacted real life.
SQ: The implications are more immediate.
ZS: Yes, and I think it’s taken some time to get here. It’s not so slow in some ways. It’s pretty direct, but it’s a climate of fear and suspicion that has steadily grown.
SQ: Okay, well shifting to another kind of fear and suspicion. How do you walk into a scene and walk away with a shot like the one I saw on your blog yesterday?
ZS: Oh, the swastika guy? I love him! I mean how nuts is that?
SQ: How do you walk in to that situation and come away with those images?
ZS: I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that. It’s just completely intuitive whether or not this will be a good interaction. I mean you can tell within the first twenty seconds whether this is someone interesting, someone I’ll feel comfortable. There’s just…it’s very immediate.
SQ: So you must have to interact before you take each photo?
ZS: Oh yes. I always ask. If it’s a portrait I always ask. They can pose however they want.
SQ: So you tell them what?
ZS: If I see someone who I think would make an interesting portrait I tell them that, I tell them why if I have a sense of why, sometimes I don’t know and I just say that. We usually talk for a second and it’s usually yes or no, and that’s that. It’s almost always a good interaction.
SQ: Is this why the portraits are so intimate?
ZS: Yes. It’s always a real interaction. It’s never surprising someone. Unless it’s a street scene—I’ll often do photos where someone is striding past an architectural piece, and I often don’t ask those people. Their presence is just movement in the photo not the subject.
If I notice that they’ve seen me, I’ll sometimes say you know, I took a photo, is that okay? If they seem adamant then I’ll chuck it.
SQ: Has anybody ever chased you down? You know—
ZS: With a machete?
ZS: Brandishing it? No. My interactions are generally good. Except once I was in someone’s house and it felt uncomfortable, and I just left.
SQ: Easy enough.
ZS: Yea, and it wasn’t even the interaction it was just a “difficult feeling.”
SQ: My partner and I were talking about this the other day how architecture can be so oppressive, how even a street has a psychology, and sometimes, you can’t put your finger on it, but there is a kind of psychic dis-ease in a random place.
ZS: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s no question, and sometimes it’s intangible, but it makes a big difference. Like in South Philly we have overhead electrical wires and it’s oppressive…if I were ever to move from South Philly that would be why because it’s like you’re literally under a weighty net… And there is all different things that make the feeling of, either the illusion of openness or closure… Once I read in The Moviegoer by Walker Percy about walking and how the “new” houses seemed haunted. Something resonated with me about that.
SQ: The new houses?
ZS: Yes, it’s not about the history it’s about the psychology.
SQ: Interesting. On the other hand, you can take a place that seems totally abandoned, lifeless, and to most people, terrifying, and infuse it with absolute joy…but there’s a lot of weight that goes with the territory of being a social documentarian. Particularly of a place like South Philly where you can feel, in some areas the tension is palpable. And the desperation is really evident block to block. Sometimes it seems you’re in a war zone.
ZS: It’s really block-to-block. My block has in the last couple of become gentrified, but yes, you can go one block and it’s…yes, it’s like Dresden.
SQ: How do you negotiate that?
ZS: That kind of dichotomy is fascinating because we live with it. That’s our lives. It’s not an abstract concept of this block is bad, this block is good; it’s very difficult to see and think about, but we’re all living our lives together at the same time. There’s no separate. People have these perceived ideas that this block is this, and this block is this, but it’s the same fucking block! You’re in the same neighborhood. For their own sanity people have a tendency to compartmentalize because we’re so packed in like this…and sometimes I think that’s healthy and sometimes not. I mean just to get by we don’t have to talk to every neighbor, but you need to know your neighbors and you have to be able to interact with them…
SQ: So, are you friends with everyone you’ve ever photographed?
ZS: Um. Ya. Kind of. Ya. I kind of love all of them. Without exaggeration there’s probably only one or two that I do not have a feeling of affection for…and you can really see it in those photos. They’re a little bit meaner… One guy, years ago, he was just a real racist, beyond the usual…you know working class white people can be sort of racist… I can have affection for someone whose ideology is absolutely abhorrent to me, but sometimes you can feel that someone is just mean-spirited. They are not a good person. Their ideas are like a giant albatross around their necks…you know we all come up with endless theories and ideas to deal with our lives, but the few times I’ve felt like “oh, my god this guy is like excessive” you can really tell in the photo that there’s not a connection.
SQ: Have you ever been terrified?
ZS: If I have I’ve blocked it… No, I haven’t been terrified. I’ve been uncomfortable with things people say, but no. If I felt I was in danger I would just immediately leave. I’ve felt scared, but not with people. Places yes, history yes, but not people.
SQ: Speaking of places…I’m from Vancouver, and I don’t know if you know this, but Vancouver has a very, very big problem in the Downtown East Side. A problem that activists, artists, politicians have been trying for decades to solve. Drug and poverty related.
ZS: I know, I’ve heard of this, and I thought, what? Canada?
SQ: Yes, Canada.
ZS: Seriously, it’s so shocking to me.
SQ: I know.
ZS: Mounties. Maple syrup. Friendliness.
SQ: Well, twenty years on when I go back and see it and know that little has changed. It’s difficult to remain hopeful in the face of such enormous poverty and suffering. How do you remain so hopeful? Do you feel that the work you do has some kind of impact, some kind of healing in your community?
ZS: This is an excellent question. I’m not really liberal in terms of this kind of ideology. I’m the far, far left here. I think you must do this yourself. Someone can’t come into a specific spot and as an outsider—I mean certainly there are a lot of things that can facilitate change and hope—actual daily living conditions for people, that’s important, that’s tangible, that’s a big part of the overall picture. That’s life. But I’ve also come to feel these people who want to come in and “do good,” “save people,” that kind of change cannot happen.
SQ: Liberalism out of context?
ZS: At its absolute worst. It’s a demeaning concept.
ZS: Yes, I mean, needle programs are great, but I think people get some romanticized idea of what they’re doing…they aren’t coming in on white horses to save people, they’re facilitating a daily need. Not, I’m riding in and here you go… I mean shut up you jackass. Are you kidding me? Does that make sense?
ZS: Cause that’s totally how I feel.
SQ: Yes, I totally get it, and it seems as though that’s what you’re saying with the photos. Your photos aren’t portraying some kind of “lifting out,” they’re a kind of witnessing. Like you have two seconds you can choose how to engage with this person. It seems like you find the most strength and dignity in whoever you’re looking at and whatever situation they find themselves dealing with on that particular day.
ZS: I hope so. I’m very optimistic. I’m filled with hope and joy.
SQ: Speaking of hope—who inspires you? Who are your photographic heroines?
ZS: I love a lot of photography but I really feel connected to the WPA photographers. I feel like that was—you know Dorothea Lange—an interesting important moment. I’m fascinated by that idea, the interaction between the photographer and subject is the photographer’s choice in this instance. So many iconic images that come from that period we see without thinking of the choices of the photographer. So in terms of preserving the dignity of the subjects and meeting the needs of the assignment the project was successful in many instances.
SQ: Do you have a favorite Lange photograph?
ZS: The Road West, New Mexico. 1938. No Contest.
ZS: Cindy Sherman…Tina Modotti. I’m a fan of all of them. Even if my own interest is unrelated to their work…they’re working within a very different framework, a patriarchal framework of who decides, you know, the gaze, and so on. I’m just like, go for it, go be your bad self. You really just have to put yourself out there for people to look at. It takes a lot of effort to put yourself out there—and pushing the work past the point where people will look at it. I mean it’s an enormous effort to get past the Jeff Koons set up of what we think art is…
ZS: Are you kidding me?
ZS: We’re post-post-feminist, post, oh, we’ve made it. Like we’re a Virginia Slims ad. Fuck you.
(Just for the record, I’m a radical feminist and I believe that we’re still in the process of creating a feminist movement. I believe the idea that social movements are fixed or static is false and we’re as connected to Seneca Falls as much as we are to Tribe 8…)
SQ: But it seems “you have made it.” What happened? When was the moment for you? Can you take me back?
ZS: The Pew was pretty big. The Pew was a great moment. Things were kind of happening, but the pew set things in motion. It was like Wagnerian Opera. So good! So awesome!
SQ: So did you wake up one morning and think, oh my god I actually do this?
ZS: Yes. Yes, that was before the Pew. That was…
SQ: When was that moment?
ZS: That was the first roll of film.
SQ: Really? When was that first roll?
ZS: That was in 2000.
SQ: Get out!
ZS: It’s true. It’s good.
SQ: Wow. What kind of camera was that?
ZS: It was a Canon Rebel. The low-end automatic and manual, like $195 dollar camera.
SQ: How did that come about?
ZS: I had been thinking about it. I’d been doing other installation work and I wanted to do the 95 project…and wondered how I could do that and when I saw the first photographs I thought it was definitely feasible.
SQ: What did you do with your first roll? Where did you go?
ZS: I just walked around the neighborhood.
SQ: Of course. What kind of installation work were you doing?
ZS: Like two big boats smashing into each other in a parking lot.
ZS: I forced my mom, my siblings to go to 5th and Wharton to go push boats together…
SQ: How did you become an installation artist?
ZS: I felt compelled. I had to do that. I went to college and I was just like, eh. It was too tiring, I had to work full time, and I thought that’s not what I like.
SQ: You wanted to be out in the action?
ZS: I wanted to be making shit.
SQ: So the 95 project was before?
ZS: The 95 project started in 2000. So I thought, pick up a camera…and then I thought about the installation and went for it.
SQ: So that first roll?
ZS: Yah, it was pretty good.
SQ: What was on that first roll? Are any of the photos in your show at Silverstein from that first roll?
ZS: Yes. Yes, it’s a basketball hoop made out of a milk carton. That’s the one that remained.
SQ: That’s great.
ZS: I’ve always been happy with those first ones.
SQ: What about Monique Carbone? That photograph is so haunting.
ZS: Yes, that’s very sad. I’m hoping to meet her mother in the next week.
SQ: The photograph of the Grizzly Bear that’s on your site. Can you tell me about that?
ZS: How great is that? It’s from Circus-Circus in Las Vegas. You go in a booth and you have a million Photoshop options and I was like, my god, I have to get one of these. So I turn the page and there’s the photo of a woman in curlers riding the bear and I thought, that’s the one.
SQ: You’re having a lot of fun.
ZS: Oh, yeah. I’m having fun. I love it.
SQ: When you’re on the street you’re having fun.
ZS: Yes, I’m having fun. I’m not looking for despair; I’m looking for something I love.
SQ: In an interview with Jeff Wall I noticed recently that he said he had begun to think that the idea of subject no longer mattered. What do you think of that?
ZS: Are you kidding me? What are you saying? I have little tolerance for that…not that process, or theory doesn’t matter, but when it comes right down to it, “it” has to be pretty fucking strong to say that the “subject” doesn’t matter, and that the theory and the process are the finished work…that’s not a judgment on his work, but you really have to be on solid footing if you’re going to say the concept is more important. Did you see his show?
SQ: Yes, I know what you mean. I’m a big fan.
ZS: Yes, me too. That piece with the papers blowing in the wind is mind blowing, but to say that the subject…
SQ: Well, yes, I thought so too. And the extent to which the images are reworked and manipulated…
ZS: For me, something gets killed in the process.
SQ: The life gets beaten out in some way.
ZS: I think you can overwork a photograph, or I suppose a poem.
ZS: …but really this is not a value judgment, it’s just not my interest…it gets flattened.
SQ: Speaking of process. How much time to you spend working with an image once you’ve take it? I assume it’s all digital?
ZS: Yes, it’s all digital. Not that much time at all. I color correct it, and sometimes crop, and I’ll clean it up. If there’s dirt, or often I get what look like oily spots, but that’s it.
SQ: What’s your camera of choice?
ZS: It’s a Nikon D70. It’s so good! I might want to get the D200 if I ever get some money…
SQ: Okay, so speaking of money. What’s next? I mean the Whitney, the Silverstein…this is a big moment. That’s a great gallery. I’ve seen some of the greats in that gallery. This is significant.
ZS: I know. It’s a great moment. It’s a great gallery. They have a great sense of history, the sense that photography is still a burgeoning art. That it’s just started! People think vintage photography is the genesis rather than a constant organic process, always reinventing itself. We’re just figuring out this new technology, and I think Silverstein has a great perspective…
ZS: And the show before mine was E. O. Hoppé’s Amerika. It’s really heartening to me to be a part of this big picture.
SQ: So what’s next? Is the show going to tour?
ZS: No, it’s just going to end. And I have no idea what’s next. No plan. None.
SQ: What about a book? Can we expect that soon?
ZS: Actually, someone approached me about that last week. I was like, holy fuck!
SQ: You must be saying that a lot these days.
ZS: OMG. WTF.