“It became about making a family album of images, day to day, that defies what I see in the media.”
LaToya Ruby Frazier
LaToya Ruby Frazier was born in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a town just nine miles outside Pittsburgh. The community’s population numbered more than 20,000 early in the 20th century, but the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and ’80s led to a sharp decline, leaving the town with only 2,000 residents today. For years, Frazier’s work has focused mainly on depicting herself and her family at home and around Braddock. Although drawing on the social documentary tradition of Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, W. Eugene Smith, and Gordon Parks, Frazier’s practice is also informed by the directness of artists such as Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans, whose work is not only a document but also a self-portrait, telling the viewer about the artists themselves and about their friends and chosen families. Frazier does not remain at a distance, nor does she shy away from difficult subjects, using herself and her immediate family to explore the social and economic realities in her hometown.
In Braddock in 1872, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie built the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, which remains in use today, operated by U.S. Steel. Frazier’s step-great-grandfather worked in the factory, and like so many other workers and residents in Braddock, he was exposed to harmful pollutants, unsafe working conditions, and health care inequity. Beginning with her step-great-grandfather and grandmother, Frazier has documented this family history, providing viewers with a glimpse into how day-to-day life has unfolded in Braddock over the last few decades. She invites us to witness the scars left on impoverished neighborhoods in contemporary America by social segregation, environmental trauma, and economic abandonment.
Despite these problems, Frazier refuses to aestheticize suffering, working against stereotypical depictions of African American communities in dire economic situations. Her photographic documents are rooted in pride and resilience, which are especially visible in images of her mother. In Mom and Me in the Phase, Frazier’s mother sits in a neighborhood bar decked with rows of Christmas stockings hanging from the ceiling. She looks directly into the camera, returning the viewer’s gaze, while the artist is visible through her reflection in the mirror in the background.
By including herself in this way, Frazier’s work blurs the line between social document and self-portrait. Her family members, moreover, are not mere objects but active participants; her mother, for example, is a frequent collaborator in her photography, video work, and performances. Mom and Her Boyfriend, Mr. Art offers an intimate look at Frazier’s mother, who lies in bed next to her boyfriend. His body hides her face, but we see part of her torso, and her bare legs from an unsparing angle, and she is identified by the work’s title. The choice of motif and perspective demonstrates the artist’s uncompromising directness in full clarity.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Klaus Biesenbach, independent scholar
Opening quote is from the video “LaToya Ruby Frazier Makes Moving Pictures,” Art21, 2012