Last week I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, which has been in existence since 1860. (I am only a recent member, so please refrain from cracks about my age.) The meeting featured 40 year-old photographer and installation artist Zoe Strauss sharing images from her portfolio. Even though I've lived in Philadelphia for about seven years now, I had never heard of her before the meeting. What a shame. It turns out that she's about as talented and dedicated a photographer as you would ever hope to meet.
One of her most noteworth projects is nicely summarized by a paragraph in Wikipedia that states, "In 1995, she started the Philadelphia Public Art Project, a one-woman organization whose mission is to give the citizens of Philadelphia access to art in their everyday lives. Strauss’s photographic work culminates in a yearly 'Under I-95' show, which takes place beneath the Interstate highway in South Philadelphia. She displays her photographs on concrete pillars under the highway and sells photocopied prints of her work for $5 each."
Ms. Strauss explained that the way the photographs were exhibited was a form of artistic expression in and of itself. The prints were originally plastic-laminated color photocopies. In the last few years she's upgraded to plastic-laminated inkjet prints. Any prints that were unsold by the end of each yearly exhibition were free for the taking. By the last hour of the last day, viewers could be found patiently standing in front of the photograph of their choice, waiting for the moment when it was officially okay to remove a print from a pillar and take it home.
Keep in mind that the majority of these viewers were not your typical art crowd but rather everyday people from South Philadelphia, a working-class neighborhood that is home to Philly's sports stadiums, Geno's cheesesteaks, and the open-air Italian Market. The photographs she displayed were typically taken in and around the area. Many of her subjects were the viewers themselves.
Her images fall into three general categories: buildings, printed words, and environmental portraits. Her portraits are often people that other photographers would avoid or pretend not to see; people who are unusual only because they're so seldom photographed. Ms. Strauss not only photographs them, she does it in a style that's almost shockingly direct, unpretentious and unsentimental.
But then, that describes Ms. Strauss herself. Before she was 15 minutes into her presentation I had learned that she is a lesbian, is in a committed relationship, hews to the left end of the political spectrum and relies on a well-known psychotropic to maintain her equilibrium. (Which is to say that she was right at home with me and the other members of the Photographic Society of Philadelphia.) She was equally direct in the way she answered questions. When someone inquired how she got such revealing poses of her subjects she replied, "I just ask."
And that is the insight I'd like to share with you today: Just ask. Let down your barriers, take the blinders off your eyes, open yourself to the world and invite it in. If you're lucky enough to be granted access, whether it be to a person or an object, photograph with as honest and pure an intent as you can. You may be surprised or maybe even uncomfortable with what you see. Your viewers may feel the same way about what you show them--yet if you want to produce photographs that show the world as it is rather than as we might like it to be, then I can't think of a better way to start.
Those of you interested in seeing more of Zoe Strauss' work should visit her blog or purchase a copy of America, a collection of her color photographs taken across the United States. She also hosts a photostream on Flickr. You may be amazed at how much one photographer can do with an ordinary camera, ordinary subjects, and an extra-ordinary desire to capture the world as she sees it.