Philadelphia Inquirer // Zoe Strauss: 10 Years

The Philadelphia Inquirer has published my review of the catalog for Zoe Strauss’s stunning exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s up for one more week (through April 22)–please go see it.

Zoe Strauss: Ten Years
By Zoe Strauss
Edited by Peter Barberie
With essays by Peter Barberie, Sally Stein, and Zoe Strauss
Yale University Press. 270 pp. $55 ($19.95 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Zoe Strauss: Ten Years is a book for those of us who still lament the day when the Gap opened on South Street. It serves as the lavish catalog for the Philly photographer’s current (through April 22) exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but it’s also a tribute to the golden age before national franchises put so many of our family-owned shops out of business, and before urban renewal homogenized vast sections of our community in the name of progress.

Of the 250 photos reproduced here, quite a few were shot in the Philadelphia area and fit into major themes: portraits; architecture; physical and emotional geographies. Many readers will glean a sense of nostalgia at work here, but Ten Years is also an assessment — and celebration — of what still makes Philadelphia sui generis. In addition to the photographs, you’ll find essays about Strauss’ place in contemporary photography and a humble and thoughtful essay by the artist herself.The current exhibition is the culmination of an annual project Strauss created under I-95 in South Philly, an “epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life,” as she puts it. Once a year she curated a public exhibition of her work on the pillars beneath the highway. Bringing art to where people are is a beautiful idea, and it’s central to her aesthetic.

That democratic spirit remains intact. As the catalog makes clear, Ten Years extends well beyond these pages and beyond the walls of the museum — that is, past the confines of what the critic Dave Hickey elsewhere calls the “therapeutic institutions” in the business of enlightening the masses. Strauss is holding office hours at the museum, sitting down with viewers who make appointments. She also has brought in the Megawords art duo to set up a miniature library and public space inside the museum (accessible after the $16 entry fee, mind you). Most important, I think, 54 billboards all over the city currently feature Strauss’ images, with no text or advertising copy of any sort.

What makes Strauss’ vision so resonant and emotionally powerful? The first photograph is of a well-dressed man of a certain age smiling at the viewer. His eyes gleam as brightly as the diamond pin in his snow-white tie. The title reads Benny Krass, Philadelphia, 2002. Those of us who grew up in this area in the 1970s, as I understand Strauss did, and spent way too much of time in front of the television will immediately remember the hilarious and baffling commercial spots for the now defunct men’s store: Krass Brothers! Store of the Stars! The portrait of Benny Krass brings back a flood of wood-paneled, Saturday-morning memories. Strauss appreciates the profound effects of nostalgia and uses them to share a kind of communal experience with her audience.

As the pages turn, we are propelled past Lights at Phillies Game and Veronica Rios Murder Site and Stardust, Las Vegas until arriving at an image titled Krass Brothers Last Day, Philadelphia, 2002. It will break your heart. It’s an outwardly simple photo of an empty suit rack above which are hung a series of 8×10 frames. Many of the frames are broken and empty, but a few still contain faded promotional images of old celebrities who had frequented the shop. Two have fallen to the red rug, which fills up the bottom third of the frame like the ocean in a tourist-postcard seascape. (The ground, or floor, bisects quite a number of these photos.) The sense of loss is devastating, especially after the previously mentioned photo, in which we see that smile on Benny Krass’ face, perhaps recalling his younger days surrounded, as in those ads, by a gaggle of bikinied models. When these Philadelphia institutions disappear, they don’t come back.Strauss’ best photographs ask us to remember where we’ve been and what we’ve lost on the way to wherever we are now. Without giving too much away, I hope, the final photograph included in this book triangulates the two Krass Bros. images in a jaw-dropping way that will have you reaching again for the tissues, and smiling — and thinking — for days.In her essay, Strauss writes:

‘I wanted to explore the strength in how we figure out our lives, and the truth of how sometimes we can’t work it out. And I wanted pride, resignation, exhaustion, beauty, ignorance, insight, desire, strength. I wanted everything. And I wanted everything concurrently’

She certainly accomplishes all of that. I also get the sense that she loves her subjects. Her photographs are rarely judgmental in any traditional sense. She never resorts to sensationalism, suggesting her tremendous respect for the people posing and for her viewers.

Zoe Strauss: Ten Years is a wonderful historical chronicle of our fair city over the last decade. Philadelphia is lucky to have an artist like Strauss, capable of pointing out the beauty that, although it is directly in front of our noses, we usually look past or ignore. It takes a rare talent — go ahead and call it genius — to help us take a step back and appreciate the people and textures and sights that make Philly wonderful. These photographs of urban decay and strange people — that is, of us — amount to an honest and profound history of who we are now.