LaToya Ruby Frazier, The Notion of Family
LaToya Ruby Frazier tackles contested territory in her first book The Notion of Family. Frazier’s beautifully confrontational photographs, and factual and descriptive texts expose her family’s struggle with disease and destitution. The book is an archive of the artist’s family and home—Frazier captures her personal experience in a concise narrative paralleling place and the individual. In her photo journal, Frazier confronts weighty issues James Baldwin singles in his essay “The Creative Process” (1962): “birth, suffering, love, and death, are extreme states: extreme, universal, and inescapable. We all know this, but we would rather not know it.” Her archival collection reveals Braddock’s harsh reality. By documenting her everyday, she provides a voice to the underrepresented often captured by outsiders, particularly people who can afford cameras. Frazier narrates a documentary from the records she has created of her own personal experience. Her honesty and proximity to her subject bring a sense of visceral reality to The Notion of Family: Viewers are promised the “insider’s look,” a Braddockian’s Braddock, and not that of a foreign reporter, recently-settled artist from New York or documentary maker. Despite the risks of flirting with clichés and déjà-vus resulting from combining recurrent subjects including family portraiture, the home, family relationships, unheard voices of the disenfranchised, Frazier succeeds in revealing her harsh reality inciting reactions from viewers.
As its title suggests, The Notion of Family documents the lives of Frazier’s family: her mother, Grandma Ruby, and Gramps. However, it also presents a self-portrait of the artist who conditions our experience of her Braddock. Frazier’s documentation of her personal life within the specific settings of her family home and Braddock is a bold move. The artist-creator is exposed, family hardships are revealed, and symptoms of residual toxic gases from the now inoperative steel mill factory leaked into the home scar its inhabitants. Despair, destitution, and disease dominate. The captured moments, paused stills from Frazier’s life, harness an impending sense of doom and imply a sense of finality in and around the walls of her home. The loss of Gramps then Grandma Ruby are struggles dealt with privately by family, but parallel Braddock’s demise. As The Notion of Family progresses, however, age loses importance in the fight against feebleness and death. Frazier’s mother is harmed by disease, and even third-generation LaToya cannot fully escape the harms of this toxic social-history. Finality manifests itself in the immediacy of the family unit, but also in the geographical social hubs we build and know so well. The Notion of Family is primarily a piece of personal narration, but as a socio-historical documentary of a once-powerful industry now diseasing inhabitants, is also suggestive of a larger, more consuming dilemma à la James Baldwin.
Her family becomes characters that develop, and often steadily decline in the narrative of her experience. Frazier recalls Grandma Ruby adorning and dressing her like a doll before her timely death. Portrayals of the artist’s mother fluctuate: in “Mom and Me” (2005), her mother is strong and confident, in “Epilepsy Test”(2011) her body echoes her ruined surroundings, and in “Mom After Surgery” (2009) she is scarred by sickness and engulfed by the narrowness of the bathroom, a pillar of stability and guidance leaning for support.
Viewers remain removed from Frazier’s Braddock reality, but simultaneously recognize disease, and familiar compositions stemming from the selective archives of the history of art. Johannes Vermeer’s iconic “The Milkmaid”(1658) introduces another dimension to Frazier’s oeuvre, which becomes enriched with a historical lineage. Frazier portrays the familiar subject of the woman in the home, but devoid of the male gaze. In other spreads, the separation becomes bravely blunt and spiteful: Frazier’s caption, “We are not in Manet’s bar at the Folies-Bergère,” accompanies “Mom and Me in the Phase” (2007), a photo of her mother behind a bar and Frazier’s refection in the mirror.
Although individual in experience, Frazier’s documentation becomes approachable in its rawness and honesty; she does not shy away from Baldwin’s, “extreme, universal, and inescapable” states, but rather collects compelling narratives contrasting the dynamic family home with Braddock’s decay. Frazier’s self-portrait is both literal and contextual in representation: viewers are invited into the artist’s surroundings as she affirms her identity, embracing labels (African-American female from impoverished Braddock), directing viewers’ consideration of her work. Abandoning the mysticism of Modernism’s cult of genius, the artist is no longer an autonomous entity solely existing within the realm of art. Frazier unveils her reality: her “studio,” her subject, her work. Frazier is her own subject, which strengthens the immediacy of The Notion of Family through her unembellished reality.
Frazier’s inclusion of a second point of view, her mother’s, increases the book’s universality. She references the Braddock of her elders, but “Grandma Ruby would never talk about the past.” Written records of a bygone time add another chronological dimension widening viewers’ conditioned experience of setting. While the latter remain factual, Frazier writes nostalgically about her Braddock unveiled by guided outings to Grandma Ruby’s favorite spots. Frazier’s mother is featured as photographer too. This collaboration references art making and maker, which Frazier articulates in her interview with photographer Dawoud Bey. Frazier explains that “it is necessary to tell the story of three generations of women whose lives parallel the rise and fall of the steel mill industry—and to tell how we survived the subsequent 30 years.” She employs multiple narratives to honor the underrepresented in today’s society divided by gender, class, and race.
Another important link to history is made as her mother regains authorship, and is no longer solely a subject of Frazier’s lens and the viewer’s gaze. The Notion of Family places an all-female household in which women are creating art rather than idly posing as subject matter regardless of class and access to formal art education. Frazier and her mother are the subjects, the makers, and their own audience. The Notion of Family unveils their hardship, but legitimizes their practice and existence too by providing a platform for expression. The women remain subjects, but are granted and assume the role of creator simultaneously. The inclusion of multiple narratives prioritizes the final product as an informative account of Braddock’s inhabitants rather than Frazier’s personal artistic endeavor. Although The Notion of Family delineates a narrative centered around Frazier herself, her subjects are as important: Braddock matters. The two accompanying informative essays “Black Braddock and Its History” by Dennis C. Dickerson outlining Braddock’s socio-historical context, and “A Notion of Photography” by Laura Wexler tackling the origin of Frazier’s passion for photography, places Frazier’s personal narratives in a larger, more pressing context of Braddock’s decline and the history of photography.
The Notion of Family’s format complements Frazier’s narrative, strengthening it and rescuing it from the dangers of clichés. The format entails private perusal, its narrative slant encourages reading in one sitting, and its privacy in subject and compilation suits its intimate subject of the self within the home, the family within the community, memory, and nostalgia. The core body of work—the photo journal—is sufficient on its own, but the succeeding contextual information consolidates its documentary format: unveiling a harsh reality of government agenda to shock and ignite change. The inclusion of a few colored photographs amongst a predominantly black-and-white body of work highlights particular moments. Video stills from A Mother to Hold (2006) show Frazier’s mother dancing and singing along to “Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation, one of her favorite songs. Viewers rejoice, emulating her joy. It is as if the poisonous smog has lifted, and for a moment, Frazier’s family’s unfavorable surroundings disappear. Subtle tools of formatting, particularly the intimacy of the book and the bursts of color, provide for a tailored viewer experience in which factual information and her family become as important as Frazier’s oeuvre.
In The Notion of Family, Frazier captures portraits of the individual, the family, and the place. By providing a voice to the unheard, her work treads a fine line between the socio-politically inciting and the emotive. Frazier masterfully succeeds in combining both by presenting her experience in raw honesty. Viewers are not subjected to the experience of someone removed from the harsh reality portrayed, but who is immediately affected by it.
Frazier avoids romantic ideologies arising from voicing the ignored. It is difficult to criticize Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, which publishes snippets of hope in a cutthroat city, but its slogan: “New York City, one story at a time” prioritizes the narrative. There are vital differences between Frazier’s and Stanton’s publications, (the latter remains behind the camera for one), but similarities too: both create a portrait of place by documenting its inhabitants. However, while Stanton immortalizes his subjects in social media archives after granting them their minute of fame, Frazier invites us into her personal reality necessitating urgent attention and change. Stanton’s work is worthy of its success and veneration, but Frazier manages to avoid the romantic glorification of struggle that often draws empathy from viewers rather than active responsiveness. Her insider’s perspective renders an alien experience approachable, and her inclusion of several narratives renders it universal. The Notion of Family is both a humbly presented compelling personal narrative and an informative book about Braddock dealing with issues of gender, class, and race.
HOLLY GAVIN is currently a Painting and Printmaking student at Glasgow School of Art. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art in June with a focus in History of Art and Painting. She is originally Scottish and Belgian, but grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, and also studied at SUNY Purchase.