LaToya Ruby Frazier
What first stands out about LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Last Cruze is how comprehensive the project is—how thoroughly it details the lives and families of General Motors workers in Lordstown, Ohio following the abrupt “unallocation” of its plant, and how sensitively her portraits and aerial views distill moments of pride, anger, confusion, and fear from up close and far away.
Every title includes the names of the workers, and how many years they spent in the Lordstown plant, reminding viewers that the photographs are of people, not subjects. In a time when politics can seem more like polemics—liberal elites blaming the white working class for electing President Trump, for example—Frazier responds by making photographs against immediacy. By encouraging a looking and understanding beyond flash points, The Last Cruze transcends art world concerns as it teaches viewers about unions and the rise of the American middle class.
At The Renaissance Society in Chicago through December 1 (the show is now at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio), The Last Cruze integrated precisely with the architecture, announcing itself with three billboard-like photographs. Two are of hands, one wrinkled and ringed and the other proudly displaying an embellished set of 10, 15, and 20 years of service GM anniversary bracelets. The little chains gleam and rest in the creases of Frances Turnage’s palm, tokens of appreciation that abruptly fall flat and feel empty when you realize the options GM offered the Lordstown workers: to either transfer to a further plant and uproot their families in the process, or leave their jobs and lose pensions and benefits.
Frazier elaborates on the wrenching decisions people were forced to make with 67 gelatin silver photographs, accompanied by interviews and mounted on a bright red paneled truss that stamps up and down like an assembly line. The narrative progression isn’t strict, but the distance from which you view it is: there’s no more than three feet between each panel, and weaving between the photos feels relentless, like going door to door to families jam-packed in “purgatory,” waiting without pay to be transferred, as local United Automobile Workers (UAW) union President David Green put it.
The first photograph in the series shows Green in the Local 1112 union hall, peering over his glasses directly at us. Drawers are pulled out, ledgers crowd the desk and Financial Secretary Rick Smith turns around to stare, eyes a little fallen and hands in his pockets. Interrupted mid-conversation, the men appear more vulnerable than frustrated, their gazes seeming to ask, “Why are you here, and what exactly will your work do?” UAW Local 1112 has let Frazier into their lives, and she’s honored that trust by making lucid photographs out of tense, banal situations—indeed, a fraying sofa cushion grounds this image’s corner and demonstrates her precise, but never pronounced, composition.
Double portraits recur poignantly in the exhibition, particularly as you realize the people in them will soon be split up. One is of Cindy Higinbotham and Monet Hostutler, best friends and banner carriers for the Lordstown High School Band. A mystical collage of Chevrolet cars, UAW leaders and national symbols hangs behind Higinbotham, who stands upright with feather cap in hand. “I want other kids to know to just be brave. Be there for your parents. Give them moral support,” she says in the accompanying interview. “I know it’s hard to leave friends, but if you have to leave something you have to leave and go on with life.” Higinbotham’s matter-of-fact resolve in the face of GM’s cowardly unallocation—announced via plant jumbotron, no less—is striking and brave. In another double portrait, of Kesha Scales and boyfriend Mark Boyd, he appears blurred as she smiles lightly and looks in through the window of their Chevrolet Silverado. The branches in the background are a dappled gray, and Scales’ hairline is magnified through a corner of Boyd’s glasses, bringing them closer. A few photographs over, Scales hugs a best friend whose head and hair are buried into her shoulder. Intimate details like these in The Last Cruze are amplified by Frazier’s use of a medium format Mamiya RZ and 645, as well as her decision to keep the photographs unframed. Printed in the darkroom on fiber paper, the images are rich in tone and texture—whether in the lambent streaks of daylight behind blinds, or a grainy puddle reflecting departing workers at night.
Turned backs are another motif in The Last Cruze, recalling the uncertain drama of Baroque painting. We see them in an arresting photograph of Local 1112 Sergeant at Arms John Davies, Jr., hugging his wife Shelby at his going away party. It’s late and they’re outside on the patio, but there’s enough light to see his staring sunken eyes, lids casting a thin shadow. His arms wrap around her back, fingers clutched like a seatbelt, but his gaze belies worry—numb to the comforts of home because now he has to preserve them from miles away.
Perhaps the most unexpectedly touching photographs in The Last Cruze are those of sales and leasing specialist Keith Burke, looking for the signatures left behind on the last Chevrolet Cruze as it passed down the assembly line. Burke peeks out unexpectedly and amused from just under the chassis, half his face barely in the shadow of the car, his pale hand cupping the bumper. Next to this is a photo of him showing us a photo on his iPhone of the car’s underside, curving names signed over welded metal as a testament to their years of hard work. For some reason, the photo feels bigger than it actually is; there’s an architecture to it, as if the names have been carved into the side of a building as an index of labor, saying, “I had a part in this.”
Ultimately, The Last Cruze is an exhibition that asks you to take your time, and return if you can. In addition to the other photographs, there’s a perceptive video with photographs by Kasey King, who documented the Lordstown plant’s fresh abandonment following unallocation. But that third billboard-like photograph, shot from a helicopter, is what seared most vividly in my memory. It’s a diptych, split down the middle where the flag stands. Union members and their families encircle the roundabout in front of their Lordstown meeting hall, casting shadows in the grassy snow. They hold up “Drive It Home” campaign signs with the same fervor of Keith Burke showing us the photo on his phone, and the determination of each worker, friend or family member staring back into the camera to say “Look! We’re still here.”