He was spectacular, the kind of kid you’d see from a mile away,” says Zoe Strauss, pointing to a photo of a bare-chested boy, one of many pinned to the wall of her South Philadelphia studio. In the photo, the boy’s eyes are half closed in a beatific smile, and he is embraced by a long-haired adult, in a sort of strange but tender restaging of the Virgin and Child. Strauss first saw the boy from her car while out taking pictures. She introduced herself and eventually met his family, who invited her in. An artist who uses photography and installation to reach a wide audience, Strauss often finds her subjects by driving or walking around and knocking on strangers’ doors. “I’m always thinking, ‘This just makes sense right in this moment,’ ” says Strauss. “Which of course it never makes sense in any moment to do that. But it just works. I have a genuine interest in other people’s lives.”
That curiosity runs throughout Strauss’s art, which has ranged from unsanctioned public sculpture and murals to her ten-year photographic installation project, I-95. She seeks humanity in situations where it is sometimes hidden, in the lives of the poor and working class. “Her work is about the everyday heroics of navigating the world as it’s given to us, whoever we may be,” says Peter Barberie, curator of photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which showed her photographs and put them on billboards around the city last year. The mostly self-taught artist’s photos depend on the strong, if brief, connections she makes with her subjects and on her ability to build these into larger patterns. Seen together, her images make up an American portrait—what she calls an “epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life”—and they have lately earned Strauss considerable attention.
Sitting in the orange-carpeted living room of the row house that serves as her studio, Strauss speaks passionately about her work, pausing to shout encouragement from the window to neighbors playing half-ball in the street with a sawed off tennis ball. (“They haven’t got a hit all morning,” she explains.) Her ability to connect with all kinds of people is palpable in her portraits, and she takes her subjects’ trust seriously. “If I’m taking digital photos, if it’s a portrait, I always show them,” says Strauss. If the person doesn’t like the image, she erases it. “Even if it’s difficult, I know they’ve seen it.” And some photos are hard to look at—a man freshly shot in the leg, a woman who has been badly beaten. “Using someone’s personal image as a metaphor for other things, I try to pay attention that these are real people,” says Strauss. “I’m not interested in a representation of someone in which they are grotesque, and they don’t know they’re being presented like that.”
Her portraits depict a panoply of struggling characters, and her landscapes are often bleak, but her images also find joy in dark places—a girl leaps between beds in her messy room, her arms spread like wings; a woman in jeans kicks into a handstand on a dirty sidewalk—and that delight seems to begin with Strauss herself. Impish, earthy, and instantly disarming, Strauss bears a slight resemblance to a brown-haired Dennis the Menace. “Meeting her one-on-one usually leads people to like her and open up to her,” says Barberie. “I’ve seen it here at the museum; I’ve seen it out on the street. I don’t fully understand why people do, but many, many people do.”
For her ambitious I-95 project, Strauss organized an annual outdoor show, posting cheaply printed photos on the cement columns under a section of Interstate 95, the freeway that runs through Philadelphia on its route along the East Coast. The space is mostly unused—there are parking lots and a skate park and bare dirt—but one day each year from 2001 to 2010, for a few hours, Strauss transformed an area into an ad-hoc art gallery. She hung her images in a grid according to a loose structure and invited friends and family to the brief show, which eventually attracted hundreds of visitors.
Every row of columns corresponded to a category Strauss devised, ranging from the fluidity of gender to American identity, but meanings shifted as the selection and order changed and images were added. In the Philadelphia Museum catalogue, a mountain of white road salt picks up new associations when it appears next to a woman smoking crack—one white rock is transfigured into another. Elsewhere, a man points delicately at his open shirt, where a scar reaches down his breast bone, while the opposite page shows swirls of oil on water in southern Louisiana, where Strauss took photographs after the 2010 BP oil spill. The juxtaposition compares personal and geographical damage, and suggests common causes—clogged pipes, explosions, disaster.
Her careful ordering suggests a sort of visual poetry made up of phrases, verses, and rhymes, where gestures reappear and connect images. Sleeves and shirts are pushed back to reveal scars and tattoos; heads are framed close up against the sky, transformed into icons. “I like to think of setting up a narrative so there’s a kind of rhythm and structure,” says Strauss. She cites Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and especially Homer’s Odyssey and Walt Whitman (who lived across the river in Camden where Strauss often shot) as favorites, and has included their poems on her blog, where since 2005 she has edited images and written about her life and her art. Like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Strauss’s photos pile up into a sort of ecstatic, omniscient view of life in America.
In 1995, Strauss founded the Philadelphia Public Art Project, which was, she says, “pretty much just me.” Early projects investigated connections within her neighborhood. She installed chalkboards on the side of abandoned houses for residents to write on, and painted a constellation map on the wall of a burned house, where star names were replaced with words for down-and-out types from Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory. Around her 30th birthday, inspired to make photographs to fill the space she had seen under the interstate, Strauss bought a camera. Supporting herself as a babysitter, she began making photographs and organizing her own shows. In 2006, photos from I-95 were included the Whitney Biennial; solo shows followed at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and at Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York, which represents her. Last summer, the gallery staged a slide show of her work, which sells for up to $3,000 for 20-by-30-inch uneditioned prints.
Strauss, 42, was born in Philadelphia, where, except for a few years spent in Nevada as a child, she has lived for her whole life. The oldest of four (her brother, Cosmo Baker, is a DJ in New York), Strauss credits her mother with her own enthusiasm for culture and curiosity about other people. (“When she was a kid, a doctor told my mother that she had xenophilia, which is a love of strangers,” says Strauss. “Just a descriptive word, not disease.”) Her father committed suicide when she was five, and her mother remarried. After graduating from Philadelphia High School for Girls, Strauss took courses in history and women’s studies at Temple University, but decided that college didn’t agree with her. In 1989 she met her wife, Lynn Bloom. “As I was quitting college I started doing little art projects—drawings, sometimes paintings, all different things,” recalls Strauss. “I was going through old photographs, and one of them correlated to a very difficult memory for me. The next day, I woke up with this insane neurological disorder,” a persistent spasm of the roof of the mouth called Palatal myoclonus. The experience convinced her that images can have powerful, even physical effects, and she credits it—along with a yearning to make art—with making her an artist. “The other part is, like a priest, I was compelled. I had to do it.”
Strauss’s compulsion seems to stem from a desire to embrace as much of life as possible. As she writes in the catalogue for her Philadelphia Museum show, “When the installation was up for those three hours, everything mattered to me. Weather mattered. The history of the American interstate highway system mattered. The history of photography mattered. Critical thinking skills mattered. Vision theory mattered. Politics mattered. Poetic form mattered. And relationships mattered.”