At this year’s LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, VA, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier made her intentions as an artist and activist clear in a powerful presentation of her work that combined diaristic snippets about her relationships with her grandmother and mother with stories about the community of Braddock, PA, where she was raised. Frazier’s reading, reminiscent of a prose poem, was intensely personal, heartfelt and, at times, forceful and defiant, drawing on the history of Braddock as a once-prosperous steel town, and on its current state where poverty, joblessness and pollution-related health issues plague the largely African-American population.
Frazier’s work has previously been included in high-profile group exhibitions such as the 2009 Triennial at The New Museum and a 2010 group exhibition at PS1 MoMA, and she has had solo and two-person shows at her gallery, Higher Pictures in New York, and elsewhere. The work she has presented thus far has been comprised primarily of self-portraits and portraits of her grandmother and mother, whom Frazier taught to photograph and considers a collaborator. Yet the full breadth of her work and her ambition for it has not been widely known, she says.
“Until I spoke today, I don’t think people were aware of what the work was about, because it’s complicated,” Frazier told PDN after her Master’s Talk. “Today was a huge breakthrough to be able to come here and talk to people.”
Braddock, which is a short distance from Pittsburgh and is the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, recently lost its hospital when UPMC, a global healthcare company headquartered in Pittsburgh, decided to close it down, cutting more jobs from an already meager economy and making it difficult for residents living in one of America’s most polluted cities to get healthcare. Yet in 2009 Levi’s went to Braddock to shoot ads using residents as subjects for a campaign focused on “new pioneers.” Levi’s found Braddock because its mayor, John Fetterman, has attracted national media attention for his efforts to revitalize the town by drawing artists and other creative people in with the promise of cheap housing.
In her talk, Frazier touched on the official histories of Braddock, which have ignored the African-American workers’ contributions to the steel industry, and on the hospital closing and the Levi’s campaign. During the question and answer period, she told the audience that the mayor’s work and Levi’s contribution to the community, in the form of a donation to the mayor’s non-profit, had done little for the longtime residents who are still without jobs or prospects.
“Documenting our lives, not telling [his story] is essential,” she told the crowd. Frazier also pointed out that it wasn’t until writer Sue Halpern published an article, “Mayor of Rust,” in the New York Times this past February, which questioned the actual value of Fetterman’s work as mayor, that the media did anything but celebrate what was going on in Braddock.
While she continues to photograph herself and her mother, Frazier has also created a series of photolithographs “documenting UPMC corporation illegally tearing down our hospital,” she told PDN. The photolithographs include Frazier’s handwritten text underneath the images that “detail the bigger issues at stake.” The work also documents a group, Save our Community Hospita—which includes the award-winning filmmaker Tony Buba, who has directed films about conditions in Braddock for years—as the group continues to protest the closing and destruction of the community hospital. A documentary film on Frazier’s work being produced by Art21, a non-profit production company that produces films on the arts, will focus on her new work about the hospital closure and about her critical view of the Levi’s campaign and the media coverage surrounding it. (The film will premiere online this Friday, June 17.)
“They got to pretend that they cared about a community, get some humanitarian points, and now they get to make their million dollars off of that campaign by selling all their jackets and jeans, and in the meantime we’re all still suffering and dying in Braddock,” Frazier says. “And no one’s going to drive to a small steel town in Pennsylvania and see it for themselves, so that’s why I’m bringing this out through Art21.”
During her Master’s Talk, Frazier referenced the work Dorothea Lange did documenting poverty for the Farm Security Administration. Referring to Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother” photograph of Florence Owens Thompson and her children, Frazier pointed out that history remembers Lange, not Owens Thompson. She said the “complexity and contradiction in that” led her to think about her own work and what it would look like had Owen Thompson documented her own experience.
“Ultimately my work is about being an American living in a capitalistic society and what happens when towns are abandoned because of global corporations,” Frazier told PDN.
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