6:03am

Sat April 28, 2012
The Picture Show

Taking Photo Exhibits To The Streets

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:50 am

Zoe Strauss is not really a photographer. She sees herself primarily as an installation artist. About 12 years ago, someone gave her a camera for her birthday, and she used it for a project called Under I-95.

She would take photos in her South Philadelphia neighborhood and display them there, too — on concrete columns supporting an interstate overpass. She wanted her images to be outside, in an urban setting, at home.

That idea grew into her one-woman Philadelphia Public Art Project, which puts the pictures back into the community, under freeways and, most recently, on massive billboards around the city. And now it's not just her neighborhood that will see the photos.

Strauss' work has earned her a Pew fellowship, a spot in the Whitney Biennial, and most recently, the billboard photos — 54 of them — were part of a mid-career exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But they were not advertisements for the exhibit, she's sure to emphasize.

"Just photos," she says. "No text or logos. I want people to take a lot of questions away from the billboards and make their own narrative about them."

One billboard shows the close-up of the face of a heavyset woman with short, curly hair, on a field of sky blue.

"So, I live at 13th and Dickinson," Strauss explains. "This woman lives across from me, Antoinette Conti. It's just neighbors on the billboard."

This South Philly neighborhood is changing. Conti, a second-generation Italian-American, is the old guard: She has lived here almost a half-century. Italians like Conti are being replaced by Mexican-Americans and Asian-Americans.

Six weeks later, Strauss replaced the billboard photo of Conti with a photo of one of her newer neighbors, Fernando Trevino. In effect, the billboard was edited, like a movie — like consecutive frames on a strip of celluloid — one image replaced by another, and a third meaning emerges.

Strauss points to the top of the billboard, where you can see clustered spires of a cellphone tower behind it. "When you step back a bit," she says, it "looks like a crown that's on top of the billboard. This is 'La Corona' ... 'crown' in both Italian and Spanish."

"It breaks out of the museum," says photographer and writer Allan Sekula, who was involved in a billboard art project last year in Los Angeles. "She brings the whole city into it with the billboards. It's a giant theatrical operation using photos as the tokens."

Sekula says the strength of Strauss' pictures is not how each stands on its own, but how they fit into the larger system of interrelated meanings.

"It's partly a cumulative effect, and more than one image," he says.

These images come from tough neighborhoods populated by damaged people: bad teeth, gunshot wounds, an arm scarred by a hundred tiny cuts; ear lobes split open where earrings used to be. Boys flipping over abandoned mattresses on the sidewalk. Some of this might seem exploitative. Strauss says she's just trying to connect with people — it's coming out of an interaction.

"I'm not looking for one thing," she explains. "Just a moment in which there's going to be an interesting exchange."

Since she started to take photos, Strauss' career has taken off. But the pictures she takes are just people she meets, and things she finds, on the street.

"I'm drawn to people with a strong sense of self. That's the strongest thread through the portraiture," she says.

After 10 weeks, her images are gone and the billboards have reverted back to what they were. That enormous picture of Antoinette, which became Fernando, is now an ad for a local auto body shop, and its meaning has shifted yet again.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Zoe Strauss takes pictures of her Philadelphia neighborhood - boarded up buildings, damaged people. The images have grown into her one-woman Philadelphia Public Art Project that puts the pictures she's taken back into the community; under freeways, most recently on massive billboards around the city. Strauss's work has earned her a Pew Fellowship, a spot in the Whitney Biennial. And the billboards, all 54 of them, were part of an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

From member station WHYY, Peter Crimmins has this profile.

PETER CRIMMINS, BYLINE: Zoe Strauss lives in a working-class neighborhood in South Philadelphia. There's an Acme grocery store, a Dunkin Donuts. In January, she watched one of her photographs unfurling on a billboard above a dry cleaner.

ZOE STRAUSS: No text or logo. I want people to take a lot of questions away from the billboards, to make their own narratives about it.

CRIMMINS: This image is a close-up of the face of an elderly, heavyset woman with short, curly hair, on a field of sky blue.

STRAUSS: I live at 13th and Dickinson and this woman lives across the street from me, Antoinette Conti. It's just neighbors, it's just neighbors up on the billboard. And there's like a whole longer like thing.

CRIMMINS: That whole longer thing is what makes these huge images an art installation. This South Philly neighborhood is changing. Antoinette Conti, a second-generation Italian-American, is the old guard. She has lived here almost a half-century.

ANTOINETTE CONTI: She said, You're South Philly. You're my idea of the neighborhood. Antoinette, I want to take your picture. I said OK, Zoe. Whatever you want, it's OK with me. She said, Now, this is the thing. Your picture will be near the Acme. I said OK, Zoe. Whatever, you know, I thought she was going to be on a tree. You know, how they nail the...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONTI: ...we're having a yard sale or something. Not knowing it was going to be as big as Gibraltar.

CRIMMINS: In this neighborhood, Italians like Conti are being replaced by Mexican-Americans and Asian-Americans. Six weeks after Antoinette's image went up, Strauss replaced it with one of her newer neighbors, Fernando Trevino.

So, in effect, the billboard was edited like a movie - like consecutive frames on a strip of celluloid. One image replaced by another, and a third meaning emerges.

Strauss points to the top of the billboard, where you can see clustered spires of a cell-phone tower behind it.

STRAUSS: When you step back a bit, that ring that's the cell phone towers, it looks like a crown on top of the billboard. So this piece is called "La Corona." La corona is both the crown in both Italian and in Spanish.

CRIMMINS: Zoe Strauss is not really a photographer. She sees herself primarily as an installation artist. About 12 years ago, someone gave her a camera for her birthday and she used it for a project called "Under I-95." That's where she would tape her photos to the concrete columns supporting an interstate overpass in her neighborhood.

She wanted her images to be presented outdoors, in an urban setting. And these billboards are a much larger extension of that idea.

ALLAN SEKULA: She breaks out of the museum, and she brings the whole city into it with the billboards. To me, it's a giant theatrical operation using photos as the sort of tokens.

CRIMMINS: That's photographer and writer Allan Sekula. He was involved in a billboard art project last year in Los Angeles. He says the strength of Strauss' pictures is not how each stands on its own, but how they fit into the larger system of interrelated meanings.

SEKULA: When you see a picture of Zoe's, where someone is showing a scar, that then links to other scars, other injuries, other afflictions that you see in other pictures. And so, these threads repeat. So I think it's partly cumulative and it's the effect of more than one image.

CRIMMINS: Images from tough neighborhoods populated by damaged people: bad teeth, gunshot wounds. An arm scarred by a hundred tiny cuts; ear lobes split open where earrings used to be. Boys flipping over abandoned mattresses on the sidewalk.

Some of this might seem exploitative, but Strauss says just trying to connect with people.

STRAUSS: It's coming out of an interaction. Both the interaction was strong and the image was strong. And so, I'm not really looking specifically for one thing, but just a moment in which it seems like there is going to be an interesting exchange.

CRIMMINS: Since starting to take photos, Strauss' career has taken off. She's landed a book deal and a spot in a Whitney Biennial. Yet, the pictures she takes are still just people she meets on the street.

STRAUSS: Some of them are actually very joyous images, although the final image is one that is open to interpretation and can offer the idea that someone might be in a difficult moment. I'm often drawn to people who have a strong sense of self. That's actually probably the strongest thread that runs through the portraiture.

CRIMMINS: After 10 weeks, Strauss's images were gone and all the billboards reverted back to what they were. That enormous picture of Antoinette, which became Fernando, is now an ad for a local auto body shop. Its meaning shifted yet again.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Crimmins in Philadelphia.

SIMON: You can see some of Zoe Strauss's photos on our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.