May 2012: Zoe Strauss: Ten Years Philadelphia Museum of Art

 Whopper, Philadelphia, Zoe Strauss, 2009, Inkjet print, Image: 20 x 30 1/8 inches (50.8 x 76.5 cm)
Sheet: 24 x 34 inches (61 x 86.4 cm)
Collection of the artist

Zoe Strauss: Ten Years
Philadelphia Museum of Art
January 14, 2012 - April 22, 2012

‘Zoe Strauss: Ten Years’ is a retrospective of the Philly-born photographer’s work. Strauss works in a straightforward style—there are no camera tricks, Photoshop embellishments or lenticular prints that animate as you walk past. She just photographs life, plain and simple. The lives captured, however, are anything but simple. Strauss’s depictions of American life, centered around Philadelphia, show the difficult side of life. The exhibition deals with the type of subject matter that it’s easy to turn a blind eye towards, but Strauss has done the opposite.

Strauss broaches several subjects, from drugs to violence to inner city poverty. The crux of her work is a joy in life or persistence that is found in harsh places, both in the city and in the country. Her work employs settings that can be ugly. The best of her work captures reality unfiltered, such as Man’s Back (2004), a close-up of an emaciated man’s shoulder blades and spine.

Half House, Camden, NJ (2008) is one of several photographs of buildings that serve as a narrative about American life during the economic recession. It depicts half of a house, apparently chopped in two with one half demolished. With a potholed road, an orange road cone, and a messy overgrowth in front and alongside of the house, the house seems somehow deficient, and reminds one of the widespread housing foreclosures after 2008. Two Women, Camden, NJ, (2006) is especially arresting. It depicts a lazy-eyed woman with her arm around her confident daughter, scars from slashes visible on the woman’s other arm. The scars allude to violence, either self-inflicted or otherwise, and the faces of the two women are stern and defiant. The toughness of the women is evident in spite of, or perhaps because of, whatever hardships they endured in the past.

More toughness appears in Whopper, Philadelphia (2009), another portrait, this time of a surly guy with a tattoo of a knife between his eyes and gothic letters flanking his mouth. He appears to be a gang member. The overcast sky, marbled with dark clouds, adds a layer of foreboding to his stand-offish expression. Unlike Two Women, Camden, NJ, there is no hidden element of humor or kindness in the cold face of the man. Like Man’s Back, the photograph offers an un-glossed portrait of reality.

On the other hand, some of Strauss’s subject matter is motivational to the point that it borders on being cheesy. Stay Alive, Camden County, NJ (2009), for example, is a photo of a yellow road sign beside an open highway and a blue sky. The sign reads “Stay Alive.” The photograph smacks of something from a car commercial. Equally whimsical is Blue and Red Motel, Atlantic City (2007), a photograph of a bland motel painted turquoise and red, apparently photographed to point out that bright colors appeared in an uninspiring place. However, since the photographs were not staged and appeared in real life, they can’t be faulted as unrealistic. They add a layer of optimism that is characteristic of Strauss’s work.

Viewers of ‘Zoe Strauss: Ten Years’ can take their pick of subject matter: harsh reality, lightheartedness, or scenes that split the difference. One’s overall view of the exhibition will most likely correlate to whether they see a glass as half empty or half full.

Blue and Red Motel, Atlantic City, NJ, Zoe Strauss, 2007, Inkjet print, Image: 12 x 18 1/16 inches (30.5 x 45.8 cm)
Sheet: 16 x 22 inches (40.6 x 55.9 cm)
Collection of the artist

Two Women, Camden, NJ, Zoe Strauss, 2006 (image), 2011 (print), Inkjet print, Image: 12 x 18 1/4 inches (30.5 x 46.4cm)
Sheet: 16 x 22 inches (40.6 x 55.9 cm)
Collection of the artist

Man’s Back, Philadelphia, Zoe Strauss, 2003 (image), 2011 (print), Inkjet print, Image: 12 x 16 inches (30.5 x 40.6cm)
Sheet: 16 x 22 inches (40.6 x 55.9 cm), Collection of the artist



Dan Tarnowski

Dan Tarnowski has published reviews of culture, and several chapbooks of his poetry. He lives in Brooklyn.

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