Intimate Portraits of Labor Stories by LaToya Ruby Frazier

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At the age of 16 in Braddock, Pennsylvania in the late 1990s, LaToya Ruby Frazier began taking black and white photos of her family and local surroundings at a time when her hometown was was collapsing into post-industrial ruin. In the exhibition ‘True Pictures?’ at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, the resulting series, titled ‘The Notion of Family’ (2001-2014) approaches the grim realities of life in America’s former industrial strongholds with a remarkable degree of intimacy, providing a personalized window into the material effects of social inequality. In Grandma Ruby’s Refrigerator (2007), for example, a refrigerator stands like an obelisk in the center of the frame. On all sides of the fridge, cookware purchased in bulk from big corporations highlights how a systematic inaccessibility to fresh food further marginalizes disadvantaged communities across America.

LaToya Ruby Frazier Grandma Ruby, Mom and Me at Mom’s, 2005, gelatin silver print, 61 × 50.8 cm. Courtesy of the artist and the Charlotte Feng Ford Collection

What is work in ‘The notion of family’ achieved collectively is difficult to replicate. In his most-cited series, Frazier’s discernment of what to reveal and what to hide is palpable because it’s so personal. On the other hand, ‘And from the heaps a tree will rise’ (“And from the slag heaps, a tree will rise”, 2016-2017), produced during a residency in Belgium, sees Frazier pointing his camera at working-class communities in Europe. Domiting the first two galleries the Wolfsburg exhibition, photographs such as Jean-Claude, Silvio, Émile and Antonio, Antonio’s garden, Flénu, Borniage, October 10, 2016 (Jean-Claude, Silvio, Émile and Antonio, Jardin d’Antonio, Flénu, Borniage, October 10, 2016), document miners and their widows in the Borniage region, a community largely made up of Turkish migrant workers. Facing a German audience, where almost 13% of the country’s immigrant population is from Turkey, it is understandable why curator Andreas Beitin chose selections from this series to open the exhibition. But while this a series evoked political discourse familiar to a German audience, it’s missing the personal stakes found in Frazier’s early work and adopts a tone that sometimes borders on the voyeuristic.

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LaToya Ruby Frazier Jean-Claude, Silvio, Émile and Antonio, Antonio’s garden, Flénu, Borinage, October 10, 2016, 2016, gelatin silver print, 151.1 × 121.9 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Collection Musée des Arts Contemporains at Grand-Hornu, property of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation

Frazier’s most recent work, “The Last Cruze” (2019), includes over sixty images and text recounting the effects of the recent closure of the General Motors manufacturing plant in Lordstown, Ohio. In a striking image, Keisha Scales, UAW Local 1714, hugging her best friend and former colleague Beverly Williams in her living room (22 at GM Lordstown Resort, press room), Youngstown, OH, 2019′ (2019), two women are locked in a tearful embrace. The composition of the image is reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph, “Migrant Mother” (1936). Like Lange and his Depression-era contemporariesFrazier uses the camera, to quote photographer Gordon Parks, “as a weapon” to expose the systemic failures of the nation’s political structures.

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LaToya Ruby Frazier Flint students and community members outside Northwestern High School (est. 1964) awaiting the arrival of President Barack Obama, May 4, 2016, II, 2016, gelatin silver print, 71.1 × 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Gladstone Gallery, Brussels/New York

It seems odd, then, to frame Frazier’s practice under the title “True Pictures?”, which feels like an indictment of the photographer’s obvious political alignments. Applied broadly to Frazier’s work, photographs such as Shea brushing Zion’s teeth with bottled water in her bathroom, Flint, Michigan, 2016/2017from the series “Flint is Family” (2016), adopt an unwitting degree of skepticism, sadly recreating the dismissive response of the US government to the demands of Flint residents at the onset of the water crisis in April 2014. While doubting the truth value inherent in contemporary photography is a productive and often revealing conceptual exercise, Too bad an exhibition devoted to speaking truth to power is undermined by a misplaced question mark.

Jstreet Pictures? LaToya Ruby Frazier can be seen at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg until April 10, 2022. It is part of the collaborative project Real pictures? Contemporary photography from Canada and the United Statesinitiated by Sprengel Museum Hannover.

Main Image: LaToya Ruby Frazier, UPMC Professional Building Doctors’ Offices2011, gelatin silver print, 50.8 × 61cm. Courtesy: the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

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