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The Importance of LaToya Ruby Frazier, Chicago ‘Genius Grant’ Winner

The photographer’s 2014 masterpiece ‘The Notion of Family’ was over a decade in the making, but found its moment when it came out.

LaToya Ruby Frazier at her home in Chicago   Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

The headliner from this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” (Sam Worley profiled the foundation’s director for us recently) is almost inarguably Ta-Nehisi Coates, the brilliant journalist and future comics writer whose Atlantic pieces ”The Case For Reparations” and ”The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” make an exhaustive historical and ethical case for what America owes its black population based on its policies over the past century.

They’re two of the most powerful pieces of journalism I’ve ever read on the subject. But I was equally struck by the work of another MacArthur grant recipient from this year’s class, which is in the same vein, plowing similar history and making similar demands, despite being a work of photography: The Notion of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier, who recently came on as an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute.

Frazier is a native of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a steel town outside Pittsburgh, home of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill and the first of the Carnegie Libraries. As much as, or more than, any of the industrial towns of the Rust Belt, Braddock has been devastated by the collapse of that industry, falling from a peak of 20,000 residents in 1920 to under 3,000 today. A few years ago, it lost its biggest employer,  UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) Braddock—which not only employed hundreds of people, but treated bodies worn down by the mills that had previously dominated the town’s economy.

Frazier began taking pictures as a teen, and became a photographer under the mentorship of Kathe Kowalski, her teacher at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. (Kowalski’s work is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.) Kowalski, who photographed herself and her mother as the latter suffered from Alzheimer’s, and who also documented rural poverty and incarcerated women, encouraged Frazier’s autobiographical work. Such an early start allowed Frazier, today just 33, to capture a narrative of four generations of her family. The hundred-some photos in The Notion of Family, published in 2014, were taken from 2002 through 2013, covering Frazier herself, her mother’s illness, and the deaths of her grandmother and grandmother’s stepfather. For instance: two photographs of Gramps, her grandmother’s stepfather, taken in 2003 in his house, are followed by self-portraits taken in the same room in 2009 and 2010, after the house was abandoned. Paint peels off the walls and piles onto the floor; the window behind where his bed was is boarded up. Still, a comb on the wall next to the window, visible in the 2003 picture, remains there years later.

But Frazier and her family are not the only subjects of The Notion of Family. The first picture is of a typical city-border sign reading “Welcome to Historic Braddock,” the sign “compliments of Air-Scent International” and “Pestco Inc. Pest Control,” foreshadowing Frazier’s focus on environmental justice to come in the work. The next photograph is an aerial shot of the Edgar Thompson Works, Carnegie’s first steel mill, and the region’s last one. Frazier weaves in landscapes and street photos of aging and abandoned businesses—almost entirely in crisp, stark, traditional black-and-white silver print—culminating in portraits of UPMC Braddock before and after its destruction.

Frazier’s long documentary process—many of her photographs can be seen here—is rare for a photographer of her age, but it gave her the opportunity to capture the hospital’s demise. A photograph of her grandmother on a sunny day outside UPMC Braddock in 2007 is followed shortly thereafter by the half-demolished skeleton of the hospital in 2010, shot across a snow-sprinkled parking lot, the building’s shattered hull visually mirroring the stony ridge visible through a hole torn through the former hospital.

In between, her grandmother dies in the hospital, in 2009; a couple photographs of her, a reticent subject, frame her decline. The hospital closed in 2010.

She is explicit, in the text and in interviews, about the purpose of her work. “I use my camera to fight for my survival,” she has said. Herself (she suffers from lupus), her mother whom she cares for, and Braddock: “I’m hoping this book can help get people on the ground: activists, doctors, civil rights lawyers. It’s not over. Now I need to make the book a weapon, just like I made my camera a weapon,” she told the Los Angeles Times, echoing Gordon Parks’s memoir A Choice of Weapons.

People are on the ground in Braddock, in ways that put Frazier’s work into stark relief. The town got a lot of attention a few years back as a destination for “modern pioneers,” its mayor telling the magazine ReadyMade that “for D.I.Y.-ers, this town is a dream.” (A New York Times Magazine article from 2011 documents how difficult that dream actually is for DIY-ers and how few are actually doing it.) It got a Shepard Fairey art installation. And it got a star turn in a high-profile ad campaign for Levi’s, a post-crash paean to work. The business magazine Fast Company called it “a steel town that Levi’s helped reinvent.”

When Levi’s launched its Braddock campaign, Frazier responded with a performance piece outside its pop-up “photo workshop.”

“A long time ago, things got broken here,” the ad’s voiceover says. “People got sad and left. Maybe the world breaks on purpose so we can have work to do.” Frazier’s work asks: How did things ‘get’ broken here? Who broke them? Did that breaking ever stop? Do things have to break? Who do we expect to do the work to fix them?

Sometimes it answers those questions. One photo shows a Mercury Grand Marquis sitting in front of an industrial-gases plant, which was built on the site of Talbot Towers, the housing project where Frazier grew up. It was demolished after a lawsuit against Allegheny County charging that the government had segregated its public housing. A second photo of abandoned, collapsing houses continues the story: After the towers came down and the county was forced to secure homes and housing vouchers, neighboring municipalities filed suit to prevent public housing residents from moving in. The lawsuit went on for 15 years.

This is part of why it’s notable that Frazier was honored in the same MacArthur class as Coates. Here’s one thing Coates wrote last year:

If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn’t need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.

Daniel Kay Hertz calls this (and other urban processes) “the immaculate conception theory of your neighborhoods.” Or in the words of Levi’s ad agency: “a long time ago, things got broken here.”

And Frazier’s work also says: It wasn’t only “things” that broke. It was people. This is something else that links Frazier’s work to Coates’s recent writing: a concentration on bodies. Coates often uses the phrase “black bodies” (notably, Coates is open about how he was inspired by feminist writing to focus on the body). In her TED talk, a brief and grave introduction to her artistic mission, Frazier says that “the history of a place is written on the body and the landscape.”

In one instance from The Notion of Family, this is quite literal: a series of photos of Frazier and her mother getting an ionic foot detox. Looking at the results, the doctor tells her: “That’s all heavy metal that’s come out of your system. You didn’t live downwind from the mill, did you?”

But it is not merely a photographic companion to the work being done by Coates and others. One of the more incisive criticisms of his book Between the World and Me comes from Shani O. Hilton, who writes that “[b]lack womanhood in real life isn’t—as it largely is in Between the World and Me—about beating and loving and mourning black men and protecting oneself from physical plunder. It’s about trying to live free in a black body, just like a man.” Only one photo depicts a man from her generation: her brother, shot from behind in a woodland landscape, dressed in his military camouflage. “While you were away fighting the Global War on Terror,” Frazier writes, “defending us from Weapons of Mass Destruction, the continuation of the War on Drugs incarcerated men your age, leaving single mothers defenseless against domestic biochemical weapons and pharmaceutical companies.”

(Frazier’s book is also a reminder that, as much as housing discrimination and other policy inequities are having something of a moment—Coates’s work, David Simon’s Show Me a Hero, and much more—the focus tends to fall on its history and impacts in major cities; the process was replicated throughout the country in places like Braddock.)

Of course, there is much more going on in Frazier’s work. I view it through a sociopolitical and historical lens, because that’s the one I was given; while a critical aspect of her work, she’s also an artistic photographer, and her work is part of a photographic canon that ranges from FSA photographs to Larry Clark, and it is influenced by and interrogates that canon. The best person to talk about this is… well, LaToya Ruby Frazier, who sat down with Museum of Contemporary Photography curator Karen Irvine at Expo Chicago in 2013. It’s an expansive discussion that gets deep into Frazier’s method, her influences, and the artists she admires.

Last year, Frazier spoke at the Freie Universität Berlin, walking the audience through not only her photography but her life story. One of the things that makes Frazier such a remarkable photographer is that she started her project so early, so her work came as she was learning about the work that came before.

They’re long but well worth watching, as Frazier’s work will be with us—and hopefully with us, specifically, in Chicago—for a long time to come.

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