A sense of humor about the macabre, as well as a love for the underbelly of American society pervades “Zoe Strauss: 10 Years,” a survey of Strauss’s work currently open at the International Center of Photography. Divided into three different categories—portraits, urban landscapes, and documentation of graffiti and signage—Strauss’s shots of derelict spaces and people down on their luck could also easily be used as the opening credits for a television show like The Wire.
The 100 or so color images within are derived from a project begun in 2001, in which Strauss staged yearly exhibitions of her work on concrete columns beneath an I-95 overpass in Philadelphia. Afterward, she sold the color-based Xerox prints for $5 each in a worthy attempt to democratize her art. Strauss did so not as some do-gooder from an elite nonprofit, but rather as a member of the community itself. She is not exploiting the unfamiliar—she is elevating her own kind. Born in Philadelphia in 1970, she was the first member of her family to graduate from high school. When she picked up her first camera in 2000, at the age of 30, she was a babysitter on welfare. She turned out to be such a virtuoso that, in 2006, her work was included in the Whitney Biennial. The critical praise rained down, along with apt comparisons to photographers such as Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, and Nan Goldin.
Although Strauss primarily photographs strangers, her portraits are not voyeuristic. Rather, there’s a sense that she’s been invited to participate in her subject’s lives. Ken and Don, Las Vegas (2007) depicts two men lying on a bed. One sits up, and the other, who is missing his right arm below his shoulder, lies on his lap while getting his face scratched like a good dog. The gesture has a tenderness most people only share with those closest to them—the intimacy is the source of comparisons between Strauss and Goldin, whose best photographs featured her friends and lovers.
Strauss’s ability to make her subjects comfortable is used to hilarious effects in Man Nude on Bed, Las Vegas (2005), which depicts a middle-aged fellow with a handlebar moustache in a shithole of a room staring with bleary eyes at the camera. In a world where the female body is usually the one on display, it’s refreshing to see a naked male reclining like the Venus of Urbino.
Far more disturbing is the nudity in Alzheimer’s, Philadelphia (2002), in which a frail old lady holding a dog regards the camera wildly. A close look reveals that underneath her flannel jacket, she is naked and showing her vagina. In this small detail, Strauss seems to capture some unraveling of the woman’s mind.
Beyond her genius with portraiture, Strauss also has a unique ability to transform the quotidian or even ugly into something extraordinary. Red Carpet Stairs, Las Vegas (2007) inexplicably recalls the terraced rice fields in Vietnam’s breathtaking Sapa Valley, while Venetian Blinds Blown Out, Gulfport, Mississippi (2005) suggests the fronds of some sort of tropical plant on a vacation island. The beauty, of course, heightens the devastation—the image from Gulfport was taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.
In Monique Showing Black Eye, Philadelphia (2004), a seated, child-like prostitute holds back her hair to expose a broken jaw and a face swollen beyond recognition. (The same girl also appears in another image in the show, Daddy Tattoo (2004), looking like Amy Winehouse.) The image evokes disbelief that such brutality still exists out in the open in 21st-century America—in a land of elevated feminist ideals, men still beat the crap out of women. Strauss exposes the invisible class of untouchables to which Monique belongs, and in doing so, demands our attention.