Zoe Strauss, Billboard 9: “Matt Tune,” Morgan City, LA, 2009, installed on Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, 2012.

Zoe Strauss, Billboard 9: “Matt Tune,” Morgan City, LA, 2009, installed on Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, 2012.

Zoe Strauss

Zoe Strauss, Billboard 9: “Matt Tune,” Morgan City, LA, 2009, installed on Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, 2012.

The photographs in Zoe Strauss’s recent retrospective read like a photo-essay without the text. Her portrait subjects—glaring or shy, rail thin or obese, scarred or bleeding, partying or parading—are mostly from around Philadelphia. Her landscapes offer up empty parking lots, terse signage, insulting graffiti, and glimpses of the Gulf Coast region after Katrina and the BP–Deepwater Horizon spill. Other images are lyrical abstractions or sweeps of some allover pattern found in nature or in the city.

At first glance, Strauss’s images seem to fall headlong into every trap that the history of photography since the Progressive Era has set: exploitation of the suffering person, romanticization of the postindustrial landscape, voyeurism of the lower classes, and so on. Looking at Monique Carbone, who appears in two very different images—first pregnant, heavily made-up, and gazing sternly sideways into the camera (Daddy Tattoo, 2004), and later savagely beaten (Monique Showing Black Eye, 2006)—the viewer might feel discomfort, revulsion, alarm, curiosity, pity, and no doubt a selfish relief not to be in Carbone’s shoes. Wasn’t this why Martha Rosler left human subjects out of The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974–75, to avoid redoubling their victimization and reinforcing what she called the “connoisseurship of the tawdry”? And didn’t Allan Sekula develop extended photo-essays to establish a realism rooted in everyday facts rather than social generalities?

Strauss refuses to package her photos with text, in order to suggest that neither an image nor an image-plus-caption can tell a whole story. She reintroduces the human subject to “skid row” but juxtaposes her portraits with shots of unidentifiable oceans and unspecified fireworks so that the viewer is struck by the dissonance of the real and the romantic.

A beloved figure here in her hometown, Strauss has built a broad community-based audience over the past decade. Before turning to the camera in 2000, she made ephemeral public artworks—usable chalkboard murals on abandoned buildings, a New Year’s party at CVS for employees working the midnight shift—and from 2001 to last year, she held an annual exhibition under I-95, hanging $5 prints on the broad pillars of the overpass. (This retrospective has not affected her prices.) The fifty-four billboards installed around the city as part of her survey have maintained this truly public viewing experience and made visible a variety of connections across space and time. In a diptych at JFK Boulevard and Thirtieth Street, one image features a sign reading DON'T FORGET US, which Strauss found in Louisiana after the oil spill; the adjacent billboard shows dilapidated houses hastily constructed after the Philadelphia police bombed the row-house headquarters of the black liberation group MOVE in 1985, igniting a fire that destroyed sixty-one homes and killed eleven people. The catch is, you won’t know that the houses in Strauss’s photographs are these houses unless you look on her blog.

Or you could just ask Strauss herself, who, with curator Peter Barberie, set up an ambitious public program: Viewers can chat with the artist privately during “office hours,” attend panels and workshops on monthly “pay what you wish” days, and take over the museum during huge dance parties with Philly-related DJs (including Questlove and WXPN’s David Dye). Strauss’s involvement in meeting with viewers plays the role of Sekula’s written narrative and Rosler’s avowal of her systems’ “inadequacy.” Not only are Strauss’s photographs deeply community-based, but her emphasis on the necessity of face-to-face interaction lends her project a profoundly social dimension.

Strauss wants her photographs to speak for themselves, but in reality, her voiceless subjects remain politically silenced, as what photography historian Sally Stein in her catalogue essay calls the “urban proletariat.” In prompting the viewer to construct an active reading of her images, Strauss emphasizes their contingency, and in speaking to viewers on her subjects’ behalf, she reminds us that the photographer always stands between them and us as a mediator. Meanwhile, those subjects remain outside the social matrix she constructs; they never get to join the conversation. Not even ten years of photographs has the power to change that.

Nell McClister