LaToya Ruby Frazier’s haunting and evocative photographs document the people, places, and politics that have shaped her life and her art. Frazier’s hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, located just outside of Pittsburgh, is both the source and subject of her best-known body of work, The Notion of Family; four works from this series are presented here. Within the domestic settings of living rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms, Frazier’s images of her mother Cynthia, her grandmother Ruby, and the young JC, as well as of herself, illuminate both the intimacy between them and their struggles with economic insecurity and chronic disease—struggles shared by the broader community of Braddock and beyond.
Braddock is where Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill in 1875. Once one of many, today the Edgar Thomson Steel Works remains the only mill still in operation there, creating more pollution than jobs, the residue continuing to poison the air and water. With the demise of industry in Braddock came the departure of hospitals, schools, and other services, and in attendance, the rise of destitution, and disease. The costs and consequences of such widespread neglect are personal: Ruby recently died after a long battle with cancer; Cynthia, too has fought cancer and other diseases; the artist is living with lupus. Though captured in quiet, daily moments, Frazier’s compositions are deliberate, often recalling photographic or art-historical precedents, and highlighting the simultaneous strength and vulnerability of her subjects. As the artist told New York Times writer Teju Cole in 2016, “There were these photographers, men like Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith, and Lee Friedlander, who had made work about the steel mills. They were all men shooting from an outside point of view.” When Frazier began documenting her hometown, she was conscious of offering a perspective from lived experience. She describes her process as “spiraling out” from the most interior corners of her life outward to images of the town and its degradation, linking the personal to the political, and the specifics of a time and place to other sites of abandonment and ruin, where generations of other families struggle to survive.
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s family album vibrates with dignity and pain and history. Self Portrait (Lupus Attack) depicts the artist alone on her bed, her upper body half-lit, her elegant features expressing discomfort. While identified as a victim of disease, she appears here as odalisque and goddess, a timeless image of beauty and suffering, confronting the viewer with her refusal to be ignored. The artist’s self-image also appears in the largest photograph in this selection, Abigail DeVille and LaToya Ruby Frazier, Pioneertown Motel, Yucca Valley, CA. Part of a body of work Frazier created in 2016 after making a pilgrimage to the desert shrine of African American artist Noah Purifoy (1917-2004), in Joshua Tree. Frazier described this experience to Jamie Lowe for the New York Times: “A few years ago, I saw something made by the assemblage artist Noah Purifoy that had startled me. One of the “Watts Uprising” pieces at PS 1 in Queens, made of debris from the Watts riots, as so similar to the way my friend, the installation artist Abigail DeVille, works. She and Purifoy both collect discarded materials. In Abigail’s case, it is to show how people are positioned in society; for Purifoy it was social commentary. They both have this sense of responsibility and duty embedded in their work. Objects that had no meaning, this junk, all of a sudden said something about the American experience.” Watching DeVille look at Purifoy’s works, Frazier’s photograph captures both living artists, and invokes the work of their predecessors: “I’m on the outside, Abigail’s on the inside, we’re facing each other with the landscape behind me,” the artist explained. “I was thinking about Alfred Steiglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe.” She was also thinking about the deep connections between her, DeVille, and Purifoy, all of whose work reveals or resurrects people, places, and objects that have been ignored or devalued. For Frazier, the notion of family extends beyond bloodlines: “I remember quietly looking at Abigail… and she saw a part of her reflecting back. It was a moment that almost brought me to tears, to realize that we did have an ally and a predecessor.”
This presentation of photographs by LaToya Ruby Frazier is the inaugural Spotlight exhibition, a new 21c initiative that focuses on a single artist making time-based work. Frazier’s work was selected for Spotlight because her photographs embody and express the theme of FotoFocus 2018, Open Archive. Documenting personal and public experience, Frazier’s practice expands the notion of an archive to include family narrative, social commentary, political critique, and aesthetic innovation.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
LaToya Ruby Frazier works in photography, video, and performance to build visual archives that address industrialism, rustbelt revitalization, environmental justice, healthcare inequity, family, and communal history. In 2015, her first book The Notion of Family (Aperture 2014) received the International Center for Photography Infinity Award.
Frazier’s work is exhibited widely in the U.S. and internationally, with notable solo exhibitions at Brooklyn Museum; Seattle Art Museum; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Her work has also been featured in the following group shows: The Generational Triennial: Younger Than Jesus (2009), New Museum, NY; Greater New York (2010), MoMA PS1, NY; Commercial Break, Garage Projects (2011), 54th Venice Biennale; Gertrude’s/LOT (2011), Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Empire State (2013), Palazzo delle Esposizinoi, Rome; and The Way of The Shovel: Art as Archaeology (2013), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago among many others.
Her work has been exhibited in the following biennials: the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial (2012), NY; Recycling Memory: Recapturing the Lost City (2014), 11th Nicaraguan Visual Arts Biennial, Managua; Mom, am, I barbarian? (2013), 13th Istanbul Biennial; and Busan Biennale (2014), South Korea.
Frazier is the recipient of many honors and awards including an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute (2017); fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s MacArthur Fellows Program (2015), TED Fellows (2015), and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2014); the Gwendolyn Knight & Jacob Lawrence Prize from the Seattle Art Museum (2013), the Theo Westenberger Award of the Creative Capital Foundation (2012), the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2011), and Art Matters (2010). In 2015, the Allegheny County Council (Pennsylvania, USA) awarded Frazier a Proclamation thanking her for “examining race, class, gender and citizenship in our society and inspiring a vision for the future that offers inclusion, equity and justice to all.”
Born and raised in Braddock, Pennsylvania, LaToya Ruby Frazier received her BFA in applied media arts from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania (2004) and her MFA in art photography from Syracuse University (2007). She also studied under the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program (2010–2011) and was the Guna S. Mundheim Fellow for visual arts at the American Academy in Berlin (2013–2014).
The largest photography and lens-based biennial in America, FotoFocus is in a category of its own. In 2018, more than 400 artists, curators, and educators are collaborating with FotoFocus on more than 90 projects of photography and lens-based art at museums, galleries, and universities across Greater Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, Dayton, and Columbus. Venues span the entire month of October, with many remaining on view into 2019.
Each Biennial is structured around a unifying theme. For 2018, that theme is Open Archive—emphasizing the centrality of photography and lens-based art to modernism, and examining our fundamental need to preserve photographs and to tell stories through their collection, organization, and interpretation. For more information, please see http://www.fotofocusbiennial.org