LaToya Ruby Frazier. Huxtables, Mom and Me, from the series The Notion of Family. 2008. Gelatin silver print, 16 × 20" (40.6 × 50.8 cm). © 2024 LaToya Ruby Frazier, image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery

An artist and activist whose work has illuminated stories of workers, women, and people of color, LaToya Ruby Frazier has devoted her career to resisting “historical erasure and historical amnesia.” To celebrate LaToya Ruby Frazier: Monuments of Solidarity, a retrospective of her work that opens at MoMA on May 12, we asked artists Zoe Leonard and Zora J Murff and writer Rebecca Bengal to reflect on a single photograph chosen from the exhibition. All three photographs include self-portraits of the artist. As Leonard writes in her reflection, “The best self-portraits in art history go beyond conveying a likeness or projecting a persona. They show us a person in the world, responding to and being shaped by their circumstances at a particular moment in their life.”

Self-Portrait with Shea and Her Daughter Zion in the Bedroom Mirror, Newton, Mississippi. 2017

With a photograph whose essential subject is infinity, it’s hard to know where to begin. If you weren’t familiar with the individuals depicted, you might assume that the self of the title is the woman directly in front of the bedroom mirror. But the photographed self is embedded: LaToya Ruby Frazier, also visible in the bedroom mirror, is in the background, at smaller scale, observing Shea Cobb and her daughter, Zion, as she had been for months. Well before taking this photograph, over months back in Flint, Michigan, Frazier and her camera were right with Zion and Shea in their everyday moments: doing homework after school, eating at their favorite diner, and at bedtime, avoiding the contaminated city water running through their drains, instead waterfalling bottled water onto their teeth as they brushed.

In Frazier’s photographs, power springs from the interior. This is where the matriarchal dynamics of The Notion of Family, her body of work of origin, play out: within the walls of her Grandma Ruby’s self-created refuge in Braddock, Pennsylvania. There, through the shared, complicated, and revelatory act of deep looking, she, her mother, and her grandmother built a family album, a story of resistance, a fortress against the environmental and racial injustice just outside their door.

Frazier and Shea aren’t related by blood, but this picture sees them becoming family. Born just two years apart, they are artists who became advocates and activists. They are, with Zion, summoned to Newton, Mississippi, by a photograph: In the midst of the Flint water crisis, Shea’s father, Mr. Smiley, sent her a picture of herself from her childhood, drinking water straight from a spring in the ground, back on their family farm. During their time in Newton, Shea and Zion re-root themselves in the land, Zion learning to care for Mr. Smiley’s beloved Tennessee Walking Horses. Both are living among the personal mementos and ephemera collected on Self-Portrait’s dresser: emblems of other horses, a jewelry box, a handwritten page kept in the corner of the mirror, a vignette portrait from the past, family photos tucked into other family photos.

When I say this is a photograph of infinity, I am talking about the way that in Frazier’s work, the mirror functions as a tool of framing, a means of reflection and enhanced seeing, and a portal that enlarges the world of the picture beyond its physical dimensions. Frazier isn’t the only one doing the observing here. The mirror allows her, Shea, and Zion to picture themselves and each other, simultaneously, equally, individually, and collectively.

We witness them from many surfaces too, each self reflected in the other. It’s a photograph about the power of photography to connect to the past and the ancestral, and to link to the future. Here, made visible, is the current of Frazier’s work that runs north to Flint, to autoworkers in Ohio, home to Braddock, and west to Noah Purifoy’s sculptures in the desert. It’s in Zion’s absorbing look, and it is embodied fully in Shea Cobb, the core and center of this composition. “Poetry becomes my ship of hope. And I just write as much as I can to stay free,” she said in a talk in 2022. As she stands in front of the bedroom mirror in her father’s house, her gaze is both strength-summoning and introspective. I think of a line from Shea’s poem “No Filter,” included in Frazier’s Flint Is Family, in which she speaks to the possibility of being able to drink the water of the polluted river that runs through her hometown: “What could I do, if I could taste God?”1
—Rebecca Bengal

Rebecca Bengal is the author of the collection Strange Hours: Photography, Memory, and the Lives of Artists. Her writing has been published by the Oxford American, the Paris Review, Lithub, Vogue, Southern Cultures, the Believer, the Guardian, and the Criterion Collection, and she has contributed short fiction and essays to photography books by Justine Kurland, Carolyn Drake, Danny Lyon, Kristine Potter, and Paul Graham.

LaToya Ruby Frazier. Self-Portrait with Shea and Her Daughter Zion in the Bedroom Mirror, Newton, Mississippi, from the series Flint Is Family, Part II. 2017

LaToya Ruby Frazier. Self-Portrait with Shea and Her Daughter Zion in the Bedroom Mirror, Newton, Mississippi, from the series Flint Is Family, Part II. 2017

LaToya Ruby Frazier. Huxtables, Mom and Me, from the series The Notion of Family. 2008

LaToya Ruby Frazier. Huxtables, Mom and Me, from the series The Notion of Family. 2008

Huxtables, Mom and Me. 2008

This photograph’s punctum—the subjective effect of an image—is the Huxtables. The family printed on Frazier’s T-shirt is my starting point because Denise, Theo, Vanessa, Rudy, Clair, and Cliff were also my neighbors. I was a poor kid whose single mother worked multiple jobs, and the television was my part-time caretaker, allowing me to vicariously live the Huxtables’ saccharine dream to escape my own bitter reality. The studium—the part of image-reading determined by historical and cultural experiences—is also the Huxtables. Frazier gives this away in the picture’s title and reinforces this idea in her reflection on it in her book The Notion of Family: “Between my background and my foreground I am not sure where I stand. Impacted by the Cosby effect society looked away in contempt while the Reagan administration sent its troops, cops, and K-9s to raid my home and classroom.”

These are Frazier’s incontrovertible terms for understanding her family’s real experiences against that of this fictional and idealized one, their positions within a white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, and American anti-Black violence. Rather than prioritizing our chosen punctum, she asks us to make space for her perspective, to try to find her standpoint.

To find that common ground, we must disambiguate the “Cosby effect” of 2016 and the 1980s. The former is the rise in the reporting of rapes in New York City, partially attributed to the visibility of Bill Cosby’s sexual predation. The latter—where we meet Frazier—is the effect, theorized by author Mark Anthony Neal, of the Cosby Show’s success serving “the political function of diverting attention away from the harsh realities of Reagan-era social politics.” The Huxtables’ performance of the model Black family gave rise to a flat, conservative representation of Black life. The struggle for the rest of us was real, while their elites-only uplift overshadowed the corrosive anti-Black effects of Reaganomics, union busting and labor offshoring, tough-on-crime policies, and mass incarceration.

This was class warfare and should come as no surprise given Cosby’s pop-cultural record along the color line (see his infamous “pound cake” speech). Some may conclude that Cosby’s legacy is “complicated,” given all that he did for the politics of representation for Black people (see the history of Black stunt workers in Hollywood). But attempting to determine how dirty or clean one’s slate is only serves to keep the hardest truth ungraspable. He was fulfilling white supremacy’s role for the Black bourgeoisie: to be both an aspirational model for, and an overseer and gatekeeper of, the Black proletariat.

Frazier’s request that we employ standpoint theory—and our actions, if we follow through—is the engagement of Black feminist cultural analysis vis-à-vis authors, activists, educators, scholars, and artists: Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, bell hooks, and Faith Ringgold (may she rest in power). Frazier is an interlocutor of these speculative free-thinkers: individuals who dared concern themselves with the complicated matters of Black self-determination and the omnipresent systems of domination that seek to undermine our power at all costs.
—Zora J Murff

Zora J Murff is an artist and educator living in Rhode Island. Murff’s practice is concerned with the pathology of white supremacy, the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness, and the necessity for people to develop and propagate skills in self-defense against those ills.

Self-Portrait October 7 (9:30 a.m.). 2007

This photograph stopped me in my tracks. It was in a group show. I don’t remember the name of the show, or the year, or the other works in the exhibition. I was walking through it, looking, and this photograph didn’t just slow me down, it brought me to a halt. This was my first encounter with LaToya Ruby Frazier’s work.

The look on her face. The set of her body. Seated, leaning ever so slightly forward with a steady gaze.

Self-portraits do something unique in art and in art history: they give us insight into how the maker saw themself, and the relation of their personhood to their art-making process. The best of them—the really great ones—go beyond conveying a likeness or projecting a persona. They show us a person in the world, responding to and being shaped by their circumstances at a particular moment in their life. I’m thinking of the late Rembrandt self-portraits: his face wistful and weary, but with a live spark in his eyes that tells us he’s not done yet. After years of performing for the camera with her lithe and glamorous body, the artist Hannah Wilke reveals a different level of grit, clarity, presence, and power in her late Intra-Venus (1991–93) photographs, which are stark and blunt in their depiction of the toll of illness and cancer treatments.

Frazier’s Self-Portrait October 7 (9:30 a.m.) depicts the photographer looking directly into the camera, and through the camera, directly at us, the viewer. Her expression communicates complexity—a sense of awareness, self-possession, thoughtfulness. Vulnerable but also resolute.

The composition of the photograph is intentional and confident. The lighting from below is watery, as though reflected from a mirror. The framing includes a stretch of empty wall, leaving ample space around the figure.

There is a certain gender ambiguity, or defiance, in her presentation—the set of her bare torso is reminiscent of a way young men are often posed, and is in contrast to conventional come-hither poses or displays of femaleness. Frazier’s bareness and beauty are part of what makes this photograph so brave. But this picture is not about the beauty of the sitter; the photograph takes hold of our gaze and focuses us in to consider this person’s internal life: their thoughts, perspective, circumstances.

More than anything, this is a portrait of a young artist. This person with their level gaze seems to have many things to say, many things to show us. To me, this photograph clearly announced the arrival of an important young voice. It acts as a wedge to cut into the canon and make space for itself. The photograph says more than “I am here.” It says “I’m ready.”
—Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard is an artist working with photography, sculpture, and site-specific installation. She lives and works in New York City and Marfa, Texas.

LaToya Ruby Frazier. Self-Portrait October 7 (9:30 a.m.). 2007

LaToya Ruby Frazier. Self-Portrait October 7 (9:30 a.m.). 2007

LaToya Ruby Frazier: Monuments of Solidarity is on view at MoMA May 12–September 7, 2024.

  1. Quotes referenced in last graph are from this talk.