07/21/2010 04:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bringing It Home: A Q&A with LaToya Ruby Frazier

In a video on display in MoMA P.S.1's "Greater New York" survey, a young woman stares directly at the camera. She is topless and breathing heavily. In a video frame to her right, brilliant white smoke billows out of an anonymous factory, engulfing some of the small houses that sit in front of it. This continues for a little more than three minutes, the video ends, and then begins again.

The subject and the maker of the video are the same: Pittsburgh-born artist, LaToya Ruby Frazier, whose appearance in the survey marks the latest in a string of high-profile museum shows, at the Mattress Factory, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the New Museum, where she showed emotionally-charged portraits of her family and herself in "Younger Than Jesus," the museum's new triennial devoted to young artists.

The video is called Self Portrait (United States Steel), and the factory it shows is the U.S. Steel mill in Braddock, Pennsylvania, Frazier's hometown, which has been the subject of much of her work. The piece is classic Frazier: filled with beautiful images, created through an economy of means, which are cut through with personal pain, sociopolitical implications, and art historical references that stretch from the portraiture of Seydou Keita to the still lifes of Irving Penn.

ARTINFO sat down with Frazier at Higher Pictures, the Upper East Side gallery that represents her, to discuss her "Greater New York" installation, an impending research trip to Scotland, and her work as a curator at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

For more information, visit the original Q&A with LaToya Ruby Frazier on ARTINFO.


LaToya Ruby Frazier's "Self Portrait (March 10 am)," 2009. Photo courtesy Higher Pictures, New York

You're known as a photographer, but you work as a curator as well. Could you talk about the curatorial projects you have worked on?

One of the first major shows I organized was with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Her wife, Lady Jaye, had passed away just a few months before. We met at a Schroeder Romero show that was curated by Jane Harris called "Keeping Up with the Jones." We really admired each other's work, but we didn't really know each other. I started spending some time with Genesis, and I went to her archives in the basement of her house out at the border of Brooklyn and Queens, and I decided to start planning an exhibition.

What was the focus of the exhibition?

I wanted to do an exhibition that paid attention to Lady Jaye's role as an artist. She had never been acknowledged as an artist. I went through her archives and pulled out work that they had created together. A lot of the work that Lady Jaye worked on had never been seen. Genesis also performed with her band, Thee Majesty, which includes Bryin Dall, who plays his guitar with a machete. When she came to Rutgers, she also performed her lecture on "breaking the sex."

In a sense, I can't imagine two sets of work that are more contrary. You're doing straight photography and video, and P-Orridge is doing a variety of different, interrelated things. What do you admire in her work, and what do you think she admires in your work?

We are both dealing with the doubling of the figure, two people who are seen as one. I don't see a distinction between my mother and me, or my grandmother and me, biologically and psychologically. I feel like that is my makeup and genetic material. In a similar way, Genesis has become Lady Jaye through a series of surgeries. He really tries to match her, and now he is she, he is Lady Jaye.

You described your relationship with your family members in a similar way last year, explaining that you were part of a lineage. Talking about your family photographs, you said, "My grandmother indicates the past, and my mother indicates the present."

The project is about a continuation of personal history, family history, and communal history. We're coming out of the same geographic location. We span the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We have a particular way of carrying ourselves and the way that we think has been transmitted through the generations, from my grandmother to my mother to me.

Speaking about geography, your work at MoMA P.S.1's "Greater New York" is very linked to where you grew up, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, and the steel factory in town. Did you grow up near it?

We grew up right underneath the factory. Recently, the town has received a lot of attention for a mayor there who is really encouraging artists to visit and do work in the area. I have been there my entire life, and my work has always been about coming from there.

Could you describe the area, and your piece in "Greater New York"?

In the video, I'm talking about how Andrew Carnegie's decision to put row houses right next to the mill has affected resident's bodies, the landscape, and the environment. A lot of people think of Carnegie as a really great person, but you're talking about people that had to live in row houses right next to the mill. Many of them were immigrants. If you live in that area today you have a good chance of having a chronic illness. That video deals with me in an indirect way speaking about the lupus that I suffer from.

Is that going to be the focus of new work as well?

I have a new video that I haven't released that deals with my mother and me being detoxed by a doctor, going through a cleansing program to see what comes out of the pores of our feet. We both do it, to prove that the area we live in is not safe. But the results are very different. In my case, little specks were floating on top of the water. He told me that it looked like heavy metal, which you might get from not cleaning fruit, and so forth. Then he said, "You didn't grow up next to the mill, did you?" This is why I have lupus, why I have certain problems. The people that live near the mill have lupus, cancer, and asthma. There's a high rate of infant mortality. The area was designed for people to live in little homes next to the mill. The mill has made the whole town toxic.

When did your family move to the area? How far back was it?

I have collected all of the information that my mother and grandmother were willing to give, but there is a lot I don't know. The reason I obsess over photographing all of us is that I don't have a family history. We didn't have a family photo album. We didn't talk about the past. My mother had difficult times, and maybe to protect me she just didn't want to discuss it.

In your recent work at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council residency, you seemed to be doing some research into this.

Yeah, I've been looking into this. There was a Scotsman named John Frazier in the area in the 1700s, and I'm doing research trying to trace his journey from Scotland to Braddock. He moved to a different county after the war, but he lived in a cabin on Braddock Avenue for a while.

You think he might be an ancestor?

The last name Frazier is a very specific one if you're African-American. It's just not possible. I received a grant from Art Matters to go to Scotland, where the National Library of Scotland keeps track of all the Fraziers. I'm trying to understand where he came from, and see why he came to Braddock. It would make sense that he could be a connected to my family because we're all from Allegheny County, and it seems that he settled for a while in the area. I can't ask my grandfather because he died when my mother was one. There are many mysteries.

In one of your new works, you show a photo of Andrew Carnegie, a historical sign related to John Frazier, and a portrait of you when you appear to be very young. Who took the photograph of you?

I think my mom took it. My grandmother liked to dress me. She had been sick, and she passed away in 2009. I was looking through her belongings and found it in a store-bought frame -- one that come with circles and squares. I pulled it from one of those. She used to take different photos of me in different doll dresses and put ribbons in my hair. She really made a spectacle out of me.

I'm curious how you started doing photography. I read one interview that said that maybe a decade ago you started taking photographs. How did you come to pick up a camera?

I went to college. I started drawing when I was six years old, painting, playing music. I was always in the creative realm of things since when I was a kid. It was at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. Our sports teams are called the Flying Scots, which is an interesting coincidence. I was studying graphic design, but then I realized that I didn't want to have to deal with a company telling me what to do. I had all of these things I was thinking about that I needed to get out in a creative way, in a form that I had control over. I started taking photography classes and one faculty member said, "Maybe you should change your major." That's when I met one of my mentors, Kathe Kowalski, who photographed families and women in rural poverty in areas like Erie. She also got me interested in a pure type of aesthetic -- straight photography, printing the whole frame.

What kind of work were you doing at the time, early in your career?

I had been photographing families in homeless shelters. I think that I kept looking at the dynamics of families because I had a lot of issues at home. My grandmother raised me for a time, and I came out of a community that was once prosperous, but by the time I was there, in the eighties, the crack epidemic had destroyed everything. I couldn't get the emotional depth that I wanted photographing families in shelters, though, so I decided that I would go home and start photographing my mom. She would go to different bars and I would just follow her around. Then I started photographing my grandmother and her doll collection, which was her obsession. I had to sleep with hundreds of dolls when I was growing up. They were everywhere.

There are men in your photos too.

We were living with my mother's stepfather as well, who I called Gramps. As a child, he was always walking up and down Braddock Avenue in suits and bow ties. He was a nice looking man, but I literally watched him die, he died in the house. The confrontation of having to deal with someone dying right in front of you, smelling human decay, having to pick someone up, change them, clean up their mess. I had to start photographing that.

When you were taking those photos, did you have a product in mind of what you wanted the completed project to look like? Did you see it as a gallery show or a book?

I knew that I wanted it to be a book. When I was a sophomore, I had made this little flip book of it. It was the size of a Polaroid, inside it was black, like a slide show. It had different chapters, with my mom, my grandma, and Gramps. I knew that it was going to be a book because I was also working with graphic design. To be honest, I didn't know what I had tapped into. Kathe convinced me to really take it seriously, to keep doing it. I was thinking, "Who would want to look at me? Who cares?" When I first made these images, it took me a year to actually start to show them in critiques and actually print them. I made contact sheets and just buried them for a year. I wouldn't talk about it. I worked on other things.

How did video enter your practice?

Video enters because of my love for watching film. My grandmother and I watched a lot of Alfred Hitchcock films, like The Birds and Vertigo. Then I went to Syracuse University for graduate school, where I had the opportunity to study with filmmakers and video artists. I finally got into an editing suite and started to take the video camera home. At that time I took a liking to Grey Gardens, and the dynamic between the mother and the daughter started to help me conceptualize my family.

Have you been showing your video work often?

I have been taking it to a variety of places. For example, my mother and I went to a church in Newark, New Jersey, and we screened our video, A Mother to Hold, there, for these boys that were between fifteen and around twenty, who were facing serious charges. One more strike and they were done. In addition to showing in galleries and museums, I have to go out into communities.

How did the kids respond?

It was an intense moment. It's not the friendliest movie ever. It's twenty-three minutes. As the viewer, you're in my shoes and you're caught. You have to deal with my mom. It's very claustrophobic. A lot of them said that they had a parent in a similar situation, and they had never spoken about it. Some said they were inspired to change their relationship with one of their parents because they couldn't believe I was able to do that, to sit with my mother, turn it into work, come back out, and put a positive spin on it.

Do you ever worry that, because your work is so highly personal, the art world will tire of it, or you'll get pigeonholed?

I think that I've answered people with P.S.1. There will be more things to come that people won't expect. I'm not worried about boxes. There are so many different ways to talk about Braddock. If I'm talking about Braddock, I'm talking about American history, and if I'm doing that, I have global connections.

- Andrew Russeth

For more information, visit the original Q&A with LaToya Ruby Frazier on ARTINFO.

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