Zoe Strauss was given a camera for her 30th birthday. Even before she had the device, however, Strauss had a vision for a project that would present photographs of her hometown where people had access to them: right under the elevated portion of the I-95 freeway in Philadelphia. This vision is at the core of the exhibition "Zoe Strauss: Ten Years," which is also the name of the beautiful catalog released by Yale University Press. In an e-mail interview with HuffPost Arts, Strauss wrote, "It's a bit of a misnomer that I'm untrained, I just didn't go to school to study photography or art. I'm primarily self-taught, which isn't the same as being 'untrained.'"
The photographer embarked on a decade long public installation in which every year a series of photographs would be mounted on the highway's columns. The "exhibition space" was about the size of a football field, with the art completely immersed in the city's surroundings. Photocopies of the works would be on sale for $5 each, but the exhibition itself was free. Five years into the project Strauss gained wide recognition for her works, which capture small urban triumphs and tragedies through a host of colorful characters. She has an eye for the wounded and the overlooked, turning her hometown into a site of collective memories. Strauss told HuffPost in an e-mail, "If I'm making a portrait I tell the person why I was interested in making their portrait, where they might end up and a little about my project on the whole. It's very straightforward and the answer is either 'yes' or 'no.'"
The exhibition "Zoe Strauss: Ten Years" closes this week, and features 170 of her photographs in the museum and 50 billboards around the city. Strauss brings Philly's unglamorous, everyday battles into the museum space with the same hand that takes fine art and hangs it under a highway. In addition to the Philadelphia photos, there are a number of images that capture troubling yet alluring aspects of everyday America (including an image taken in Louisiana that got her in hot water when a New Orleans photographer accused Strauss of copyright infringement).
Strauss' work pays homage to William Eggleston's brightly colored photos that made artifacts of mundane life. She also cites Nan Goldin as an inspiration, which is evident in her ability to capture fleeting forms and bizarre details. From a new tattoo, fresh and swelling, to bitter words carefully written on a wall in all caps, Strauss has a talent for catching random moments with deep, dramatic undertones.
When asked what is influencing her at the moment, she wrote in an e-mail, "The City of Jerusalem, both history and current affairs." We can't wait to see what this intrepid photographer does next.
"Zoe Strauss: Ten Years" will show at The Philadelphia Museum of Art until April 22.