Zoe Strauss

10.03.13

Zoe Strauss at the Homesteading portrait studio, September 2013.


Philadelphia-based artist Zoe Strauss is known for her documentary photography, portraiture, and images of the urban landscape. Here Strauss speaks here about her latest ongoing project, Homesteading, which was commissioned by the Carnegie Museum of Art for the 2013 Carnegie International. The International is on view from October 5, 2013, through March 16, 2014.

HOMESTEADING IS a multifaceted project that addresses many of the factors resulting from the shift in global industry related to late capitalism, like what happens to a city when its major industry is replaced by retail and service jobs. Homestead, Pennsylvania, is where the US’s second deadliest labor strike, the Homestead Strike, occurred in 1892. In brief, workers at a mill owned by Andrew Carnegie—known as Homestead Steel Works, which produced steel for a number of important American landmarks, including the Empire State Building—were locked out of the mill after failing to renew a contract despite months of negotiation. It was announced that Henry Clay Frick, who Carnegie had placed in charge of operations at the mill, had begun the lockout one day before the existing contract expired, violating the agreement that had been put in place. As a result, the striking workers were determined to keep the plant closed, and their efforts escalated into a battle between a hired security guard company—the Pinkertons—and the community, with blood shed on both sides. The strike resulted in major losses for the union. Soon after, the Carnegie Steel union completely collapsed and would not be reestablished for another forty years. Carnegie later sold the mill to JP Morgan and a few other investors, contributing to his enormous fortune.

The effects of the deindustrialization that happened after the mill closed in 1986 and the resulting mass hemorrhaging of jobs have utterly transformed the town. Many things have changed, including the arrival of a giant mall. When the mill shuttered, the Waterfront, with its numerous big box chain stores, was built on the footprint of the razed Homestead Works; also gone is the theater where the Sex Pistols would have played their first American show in 1977 if it weren’t for immigration issues. People who live in Homestead now are still trying to figure out new ways to stay there and work.

Homesteading addresses the way wealth is accrued and moves through the world in relation to this place, which generated the funds that built the Carnegie Museum and metropolises like New York. I opened a portrait studio in Homestead, on a block on Eighth Avenue that has recently begun undergoing revitalization. The studio has been set up so anyone who lives or works in the zip code or is a member of the United Steelworkers union (currently or retired) can visit and have their picture taken. Two hundred of those portraits will be featured at the Carnegie Museum, which is three miles away. After the International closes, the Carnegie will accession up to five hundred images, each valued at $1000.

Along with the portraits from the studio, I will be exhibiting two projections, which will be screened both in the Carnegie Museum and at the Pump House, where the first workers were killed during the strike. One projection will show a looped image of the Monongahela River, which divides Homestead from Pittsburgh. The name Monogahela comes from the Lenape word mënaonke, meaning “where banks crumble and fall.” Like this moving image, it's important to talk about Homestead in action. The area, after this century-old event, is in a constant state of renewal, which is why its name could be more accurately understood as a verb, as in “homesteading.”

— As told to Victoria Petersen