Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Zoe Strauss Problem

I've never been a big fan of Zoe Strauss. I've always found it more engaging to criticize Strauss' work than to look to it for what is magical. I have a colleague that is obsessively jealous of Zoe's success. Nary has a conversation gone by about the state of creating work and the market for photography that her name hasn’t come up. Certainly her career has been kind of like the character of Pecker in the eponymous movie by John Waters, where a kid from an eccentric family with no formal training (Does Strauss have a college degree even?) in a gritty working class enclave picks up a cheap 35mm Canonet rangefinder camera (sometimes called a “poor man’s Leica” and one of my favorite cameras) and within months has a show at Cheim and Reid. Art diverges from life in that Strauss' rise to stardom was much slower, taking years (and assuredly much hard work) and built by cultivating a huge following via her public art project--exhibiting her yearly work under the I-95 underpass for a full decade.

Those unfamiliar with her work can find it here:

My obsessed colleague is a fine black and white printer and his work is crisp, precisely composed; the images pop and jump; they are labors of loving perfection in the service of visual beauty, much like abstract paintings that one enjoys simply for what they do for your retinas and soul. Viewing the pieces is akin to walking into a grand cathedral even if you are not religious; you are uplifted by the grandeur. What is primarily captured is the photographer’s affection and dedication to working in the medium: photography about photography. The subject matter and the artist largely disappear. Such work inhabits the realm of the connoisseur. It's a very hard sell, especially in Philadelphia, perhaps anywhere, and requires a kind of appreciation that has to be sought out in the way one searches for four-leafed clovers. Strauss, on the other hand could have her work printed at the Walgreens down the block and people would still be clambering for it. She is not what you would call a "photographer's photographer." It's not the honing of the photographic qualities of her work that "make" the shots. She uses a DSLR set on "full-auto"-basically point-and-shoot. I don't believe she does anything but relatively basic editing and corrections in Photoshop and is not an obsessive perfectionist when it comes to the printmaking; the photos verge on snapshots.

David Shields coined the phrase "reality hunger" to describe the state of modern society. That is, we experience very little reality in our daily lives; therefore artists are consistently trying to sneak more and more reality or the impression of it into their oeuvre. In photography, the world hankers for images that take the viewer into places wherein only a solitary soul has been able to gain access, be this physical, temporal, spiritual or emotional. If the work fails, it's because it fits the ever-heard exclamation: "Been there, done that!" The ingenuity, the artfulness of Strauss's work is that she knows how to squeeze her self and her lens into that impossibly tight cranny or, more likely, give the impression that she has. By doing this she cuts to the chase concerning the core underpinnings of much contemporary photography. Journalists love to talk about her South Philly neighborhood, the characters, etc, but the truth is, everyone lives some place weird. The world is utterly surreal. It's Strauss's ability to throw her self into that bizarre world and still come up for air that makes it all tick. The mystery, and the thing to be envied as someone who too wants to succeed and navigate the snark-infested waters of the art world, is not her popular appeal but her uncanny ability, to do a kind of voodoo-like magic: the combination of internal and outward transformations necessary to make her striking images, and to do it smack in the middle of rough streets.

I've been thinking about this, of course, because of my own work much of which is more synthetic and connected to the process of photographic printmaking. As I sit at my part-time job, I have visions of hitting the streets, maybe with a Leica a la Cartier-Bresson or Gary Winogrand. I feel pulled to the work of the great street photographers and can't help but think "Yeh, this is what IT is about." Yet as I move away from daydreams and take stock of who I am, I've come to realize that a great deal of the work I’ve done up to now succeeds (I hope) because I've been able to gain access to a unique interior space within myself. As my work has progressed over the years, I'd like to believe I've become more frank and open about letting people view that landscape, as well as becoming more adept at making what is essentially invisible, visible, and therefore "real." I thrive on solitude and working with models in intimate, controlled settings, or trekking the urban landscape with a camera. So, a dilemma has arisen for me, certainly a good one and to be considered as well as acted upon. "I should grab my camera, get an unlimited pass on Greyhound, land where I may and just jump around the country taking photos," my aforementioned colleague said to me a few summers ago. I thought it was a great idea and being one that knows the future is always uncertain, encouraged him to do it NOW, to just go and ramble; take the chance. His instincts had figured out something primary long before his conscious mind had.

Photo: RA Friedman, "Broad and Tasker"

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