In this affecting exhibition of black-and-white photographs, LaToya Ruby Frazier combines portraiture and social documentary in a narrative that weaves together the socioeconomic ills plaguing her hometown of Braddock, Penn., and the failing health of the women in her family.
Home to one of the country’s first steel mills, Braddock has been deemed a “distressed municipality” by the state. One result of its long economic downturn is seen in Fifth Street Tavern and UPMC Braddock Hospital on Braddock Avenue (2011). The title is something of a misnomer, since what Frazier shows are the ruins of the hospital after it was torn down, a cruel irony given the prevalence of cancer in the area. The tavern, though, remains standing, perched on the edge of a pit where the hospital used to be.
These photographs move easily between the streets of Braddock and the rooms of her family’s home. Some were accompanied by autobiographical text. Thus we learn that Frazier has lupus, and in 2008 she discovered that both her mother and her grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer. Her multigenerational portraits explore familial bonds rooted in female relationships. Grandma Ruby and Me (2005) shows the two women sitting on the floor, turning to face the camera, surrounded by a doll collection belonging to the grandmother, who plaited Frazier’s hair in childlike braids for this image. It is one of several that suggest the artist’s longing for childhood and for the caretaking of the adult women in the family, even as the roles of parent and child have begun to reverse.
Frazier’s mother appears in many of the images, sometimes as a maternal presence, other times as a sexual being (as in Mom and Her Boyfriend, Mr. Art, 2005). In Shadow (2008), though, looking straight into the camera, she shields her daughter, while Frazier retreats behind her, eyes averted. On the blanket that serves as a background, the pair casts a shadow—an allusion to the impending loss of Frazier’s grandmother, who died several months later, of pancreatic cancer. The poignant Momme Silhouettes (2010) is a 5-by-4-foot grid of nine images of Frazier and her mother, in shadow, behind a floral bedsheet. Their gestures could be supplicating, or argumentative, but either way the piece is a complex psychological portrait of a relationship.
Frazier’s photographs are part Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, part Francesca Woodman and part Carrie Mae Weems. (The last taught Frazier at Syracuse University.) Two of the walls in the exhibition space are covered, top to bottom, in wallpaper made up of a collage of black-and-white images—found photographs of the history of Braddock and Frazier’s own photographs of her family. The collage is not only a pointed reminder that African-Americans are an integral part of the history of Braddock, but an illustration of the enmeshed fates of the city and its citizens.
PHOTO: LaToya Ruby Frazier: Grandma Ruby and Me, 2005, gelatin silver print, 15½ by 18½ inches; at the Brooklyn Museum.