During the run of A Haunted Capital at the Brooklyn Museum (March 22 – August 11, 2013) and while preparing for Witness at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (June 22 – October 13, 2013), artist LaToya Ruby Frazier came by the Rail’s headquarters in the first days of June to discuss photography, activism, and the importance of portraiture with Managing Art Editor Charles Schultz and Art Books in Review Editor Greg Lindquist.
Greg Lindquist: Let’s start by talking about how you got started with photography. What was your initial relationship with photography like?
LaToya Ruby Frazier: One of the first images I made was a portrait of one of my younger cousins in the yard on Holland Avenue in Braddock. He just stood right in the center very much like an August Sander portrait. I was in an introductory photography class and I remember my professor recommended I change my major from Graphic Design to Photography. After that I met my mentor, Kathe Kowalski. Kathe’s whole career was committed to photographing families living in rural poverty and photographing women in prison, as well as photographing how her mother died. She and her mother had a tense relationship throughout her life that she never really spoke about, but it was evident in the portraits that she made of her mom and how she photographed herself with her mother. Kathe brought in people like bell hooks. bell I had met two different times at at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, a state school that had very intimate classes, like maybe 10 to 12 of us. One day Kathe gave me a Carrie Mae Weems’s book. She gave me Eugene Richard’s Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue and Larry Clark’s Tulsa. And the reason she gave me those books was because I refused to show the photographs of my mother in the classroom. I didn’t feel like they were valid or that they mattered.
Lindquist: When did you start taking photographs of your mother?
Frazier: Immediately. Prior to shooting with a camera I was always drawing or painting. I would do contour line drawings of Gramps sitting in his recliner or with his walker—things like that. But I’m not just looking at things in the physical; I’m looking at a spiritual and a physical realm. And there’s a poetic way that I’m seeing these things even though they are politically charged and personal. I think I’m speaking to my viewer in an emotional, psychological space. I’m giving them this feeling, allowing them to embody this, or allowing them to also see the work and have introspective thought and not just have me dictating facts, which is why fact and fiction comes into this interesting play and dynamic in all the work.
Lindquist: Can you give an example?
Frazier: Yeah, think about “Momme Portrait Series (Shadow)” (2008). My mother and I were photographing ourselves. It’s Christmastime, it’s one of the holidays, but it’s totally void of the holiday. In fact, the majority of all my work is shot during some type of holiday. She’s battling cancer, I’m battling Lupus. We’re both sick in that photograph and that is what prompts us to make the work. But then there’s the cast shadow that brings in a spiritual realm because at that time my grandmother was passing.
In one sense, it was just a day in the bedroom, using it as the stage or a studio, putting the mattresses up against a wall, draping them with our comforter, and just standing there, documenting ourselves. But because of the way I pay attention to light, shadow, and detail, much like how you would look at a Baroque painting, that slippage of the spiritual realm in this fiction starts to come into play.
Charles Schultz: Talking about spirituality, one of the motifs I recognized in your work is a recurrence of things in threes. The three main characters are you, your mother, and Grandma Ruby. Other times objects form a compositional triangle, such as the portraits on the bedside table in “Aunt Midgie and Grandma Ruby” (2007). It is as if you’ve put a feminist spin on the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. But the trinity isn’t only a Christian symbol; it has a deeper history in folklore and is significant in numerology. Are these kinds of references conscious decisions in your work?
Frazier: Well, it was presented, right? This body of work has so much to do with me being a young person. I wasn’t a professional artist making work. I was a young person exploring something that I was frustrated about and had a lot of questions about. This body of work will always be associated with discovery. And because it was so intuitive, there were magical moments that would always happen.
The reason it’s three is because I’m looking at three generations of women in my family. And not anywhere in the history of America, or even in the library in Braddock, Pennsylvania is there a record that three women like us ever existed in these types of socio-economic conditions. How is that possible?
My grandmother grew up during the ’30s. The South was in this depression, but they had escaped and come to the North. Things were booming and happening up here and my grandparents were a part of that. My mother grew up in the ’60s: segregation, white flight, the G.I. Bill. She witnessed all the redlining happening. So, there’s another part of that story negated, never told, silenced. For me to be born in 1982, after Reagan, and to see all the steel mills—they were pretty much blown up and removed by the time I was born. To me, my life in this timeline is a signifier. I was a youth during the War on Drugs. Each one of our lives, the years we were born, is a time marker in history that for some reason hasn’t been cared for, or looked after, or preserved. That’s where the three comes in. We represent three generations of witnesses who can account for the way America was shaped and changed by three very different economic models. This implication becomes a residue on the actual people’s bodies that are living in these environments.
Lindquist: Speaking about the residue of bodies, there’s the one image of “Mom After Surgery” (2009), where the wound is directly exposed, not implied but made visible. I feel like that’s a really powerful, pivotal image. But I was also struck by how it seemed in dialogue with Johannes Vermeer’s “Woman Holding a Balance” (1662-3). In many ways, it’s a counterpoint. The Vermeer painting is all about lightness: there’s natural light coming through the window; the woman’s holding a delicate instrument and everything on the table is about the display of wealth. And the woman is not looking at the viewer; she’s demurely focused on the scale. In “Mom After Surgery” the light source is a dim fluorescent tube; all of the objects are banal, objects of survival, perhaps, if they’re medication, and then you have your mother who is intensely confronting the viewer. There an immense gravity. Can you talk about that photograph?
Frazier: Showing the wound and my mom still standing there, to me, it’s a testimony about being able to endure certain types of iniquities and injustices against working-class people. She’s got all of these battle scars and wounds, but she’s still standing. There’s a resiliency and a regalness in a lot of photographs that I’ve taken of Gramps and of my grandmother, for example “Grandma Ruby on Her Bed” (2005). She’s not in a hospital; she’s on her bed. And she’s at peace even though there’s all this turmoil around her and all this loss. I mean, this was a stoic, strong woman, that no matter what was happening in the community, or with the economy, and how we were being removed and silenced, she still kept this peaceful love to her. That image to me is not about her frailty at all. It’s about seeing her as the stoic hero that she actually is. It’s a quiet kind of power.
Schultz: I noticed that the bed is another recurring motif in the show at the Brooklyn Museum. Almost everyone is, at one point or another, photographed on a bed: “Gramps on His Bed,” “Grandma Ruby on Her Bed” (2002)—which is a photograph that foreshadows the funeral shot, “Grandma Ruby, Mom, and Me” (2009), of Grandma Ruby on her death bed. But also “Mom and Her Boyfriend, Mr. Art” (2005), are shown in bed, as are you. Plus, you make D.I.Y. stages or sets using bed materials, like your sheets and comforters, and you do performances in your grandparents’ pajamas. So I’m wondering what the bedroom means for you?
Frazier: I mean, beyond the fact that that’s where we were spending most of our time—in separate rooms, in silence—I see it as symbolic of the private versus the public space. People need their own space even when they’re already living in a cramped environment. So, you just go to your own room, even though there’s nothing to do there. But I’m not afraid to confront the fact that we’re clearly dying in these types of harsh, environmental conditions. A lot of people spend their time trying to avoid death, but I’m more interested in seeing it and trying to capture this ephemeral thing that you can’t really touch but that you perceive and you know.
Schultz: The idea of the wound, or of being wounded in some sense, seems central to your practice. And as a photographer, I wonder if you relate at all to Roland Barthes’s concept of “the punctum” as an element in the picture that pierces the viewer, that wounds them in some way.
Frazier: You know I always have to come back and read that work once in a while, because when I first read it I was too young and highly argumentative. [Laughs.] Because Barthes is always talking about photographers as “agents of death,” you know? And I’m like, “I’m not an agent of death!” [Laughs.] Even though everything I just described very much is, so he is probably right. For me, I always think about what happened to August Sander. He’s not necessarily inserting a Barthian punctum in his portraits of German people, yet his work was such a threat to Hitler that it caused his books to be banned and his printing plates to be destroyed. It’s almost as if it were a propaganda in and of itself, but it was really about life and living. Still, it threatened one of the most powerful forces Hitler created with his Nazi propaganda. It shows that there is real power and potential danger in portraits of working-class people, and that such images can threaten whatever type of ideology a corporation or government might try to promote.
I know that I have a responsibility to those kinds of images, but I’m also aware that they’re going to live on after I’ve died. I don’t know how else to explain it, but I don’t feel like the work will ever come into its full discovery with people until after I’m gone. Because it just takes time. And I’m committed to knowing that I’m leaving behind this trace that I existed, that my family existed, that my town existed, because it’s been wiped away. I mean they’ve already razed most of it. You would never know that we lived there, or that anything like that had ever happened to us. And so how you leave that human trace, that human document behind is what becomes an obsession for me, as well as chasing history. I’m definitely chasing American history because we’re just not included, we’re not there. And I’m not blaming anyone, but someone has to step up and take the responsibility to put us in there. And I feel a very strong sense of duty to do that.
Schultz: When did you think you first kind of became aware of this sense of duty? Do you think Kathe Kowalski helped bring that out?
Frazier: Kathe showed it to me, but I didn’t know. I wasn’t ready then. I was still too young. I don’t think that it really hit me until now. When you start to see your hometown on Levi’s billboards in cities like New York, and you see that it’s a whole other narrative, that’s when it’s like: okay, let’s rewind this for a minute, let me take my time and go back into history and look. How did we get from being shaped and created by Andrew Carnegie to all of a sudden being reshaped by the Levi’s Corporation? And what does that mean to live in between these two monolithic corporations? Because that matters: It shows you another identity. And it’s dangerous when you see a misconstrued and misunderstood identity of a place, and a town, and a population.
Schultz: Especially one as manipulative as the Levi’s campaign.
Frazier: Well, it’s a myth. It’s a total, fictitious myth. And I’m sure whatever I leave behind will become a myth to whoever discovers it. I’m offering a counter-narrative and a counter-perspective to this monstrous Levi’s corporate machine, that clearly it’s going to take me day by day, for the rest of my life to negate what they have achieved. And so I know now more than ever, after witnessing those monstrous billboards—I mean they were stacked four high on 7th Avenue and up on 42nd street. The first one I saw was at Broadway-Lafayette in SoHo, the most expensive billboard slot in Manhattan. And I was just like, wow! You’ve really got work to do! [Laughs.] And it doesn’t help when people like Martha Rosler are calling you out, saying, “What are you going to do about this?” It’s almost as if I was innocently discovering my own body of work and then all of a sudden was forced to realize what it was there for, or why Kathe would talk to me the way she did about the importance of documenting and showing the images publicly. Or why Carrie Mae Weems at the end of my thesis presentation was like, “You know, when is someone going to talk about class?”
Schultz: I’m glad you mentioned class. Your work speaks for a community that represents one class and has been embraced by an institutional community that represents a wholly other class. How do you negotiate that disparity?
Frazier: Well, I live in both places at the same time. I’m spending just as much time in the community amongst people who probably would never go in these institutions as I am putting these shows together for institutions. I’m a cultural agent. My job is to come in and stir the pot, or cause some type of other change or inclusion at the institutional level. But I also know that I’m responsible or accountable for being an example in communities that are completely marginalized and ostracized from these types of events. And I do that by always building workshops and arts education programs around each exhibit that I do. Putting the work up isn’t where it stops; it’s where it begins.
Lindquist: Do you consider putting together community activities a form of activism?
Frazier: I don’t know what activism is at this point. And I’m very concerned about activism and art because I’m seeing all these artists getting social practice degrees and saying they’re activists. And then you see them in predominately black communities like Braddock, and I start scratching my head wondering, well, does a social practice degree teach people how to interact with black men and black women? Because that doesn’t happen so well in Braddock and that concerns me. Trying to interact with these artists and watching how they just put their blinders on when it comes to race makes me realize that I have to be accountable to the community. I can’t just be an artist, and I don’t know that anyone is just an artist. At the end of the day, I’m a human being amongst fellow human beings. For me to ever become an activist would be using my work to change and shape policy like Lewis Hine and his colleagues. They achieved that. The Pittsburgh Survey achieved that. I haven’t matured to that level yet, but it’s something that I’m starting to think about and work on.
Lindquist: You’ve talked about changing the historical narrative, offering alternative history, or a “corrective representation” as Carrie Mae Weems would say. Do you see an impact that your work is having on Braddock currently?
Frazier: It’s raised awareness. It’s been in the media a lot in the last five years, and I’ve had a lot of different people come up to me in different venues and say, “I didn’t even know.” If you have someone like Rick Lowe go into your town and he doesn’t know that it’s predominately black, something’s wrong. If you google “Braddock” and African-Americans don’t come up, or our contribution doesn’t come up, there’s something wrong.
Lindquist: Yet, you are doing more than simply raising awareness.
Frazier: It is necessary to teach people about the dangers of consuming exploitative notions of race, class, gender, and citizenship. These are real dangers that the media feeds on. And that’s what’s promoting the racism, exclusion, and prejudice in Braddock right now. It’s not a frontier. There are people that have been living there—yeah, they’re disenfranchised people—but there are people that live there. And had I not made the images of my family, I wouldn’t be able to show that reality at the Brooklyn Museum, you know?
Schultz: You also have a few photographs on view in the American Identities exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. And the curators hung your work alongside paintings by Charles Sheeler, Edward Hopper, and Mark Rothko. What are your thoughts about that?
Frazier: Seeing Sheeler’s painting of the Ford plant right across from my photograph, “The Bottom” (2009), that shows an abandoned car sitting by the steel plant with the Kennywood Amusement Park behind it, it’s powerful to me. Sheeler was shooting for Ford. He was glorifying Ford and I am showing you an image of Post-Fordism.
Schultz: It’s very plain to see when you look at those images: here are emblems of Modernism being celebrated and made into an iconography of American progress. And then here’s your work right beside it showing where all this wound up. It’s also a testament to your success inserting the voice and story of Braddock into the larger history of American art and culture.
Lindquist: You also have a show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston that you are installing later this week, can you tell us a little about that?
Frazier: Houston is going to focus on the photolithographs and the video work. Houston is where I unravel my relationship to the history of documentary practice. How I negotiate power and agency. How I move in and out of being in front of the camera, behind the camera, but then also allowing the message to come through my images about a group of people who are marginalized and silenced, you know? Times are hard. I’m not delusional and I’m not afraid to look at the situation head on. When you see an influx of manipulative imagery everywhere, you know that this is a really precious technological age, and we have to use technology the same way that our government uses it—as a weapon—but to fight back against the type of oppressions that we’re under.