Philadelphia's Zoe Strauss presents a photographic vigil of an America struggling through the final year of the Bush Administration
"There's no one American reality, there are hundreds and they are all true. The photos in this book are an American reality that I know, from where I live in Philadelphia and from where I've traveled in the last few years. I found this same America no matter where I went. A joyful, loving and proud America. A mean, fearful and apathetic America. Beautiful, brutal, myopic, idealistic, stunted, exuberant. America is all of it. And as an American, I'm all of this too. Here we are."
America, to be published by AMMO Books this month, is a collection of 165 photographs that explore the country's tumultuous atmosphere as we celebrate the death rattle of the Bush administration.
Artistically, the book is an homage to Robert Frank's The Americans, the seminal book of photography by the reclusive Swiss-born artist perhaps better known in popular culture for his cover image of Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St. and for directing Cocksucker Blues. The Americans is celebrating its 50th anniversary with retrospective exhibits planned throughout 2009.
A collection of shots taken while crisscrossing the country on road trips, The Americans stripped the veneer of twirling poodle skirts and shiny muscle cars off the 1950s by showcasing the melancholy beauty of a vast country through portraits of Route 66 waitresses slinging dime cups of coffee, as well as truck drivers, street buskers and assorted denizens of jukebox blues.
In the original introduction, Jack Kerouac wrote that Frank had "sucked a sad, sweet poem out of America." Strauss' goal was to revisit the country's atmosphere 50 years later.
The majority of the photographs in America were taken in Philadelphia. Strauss refracts the American spirit through the grooves of our faces, the way we hang our jaw, the ramshackle fragments of deindustrialization that grow and shed on our streets like coral.
The balance of the photos were snapped on road trips Strauss embarked on specifically for the book. She clicked and whirred through El Paso, Atlanta, Chicago and the Trinity Site, the former test site in the New Mexican desert where a booming shattering of light blasted America into the atomic age in July 1945. Now it's a tourist attraction where travelers collect shards of radioactive rock and children's faces are painted with bombs and flags--just the kind of American paradox that blows Strauss' mind. A lifelong Philadelphian, she says traveling so much changed her perspective.
On the corner of McClellan and Fifth streets in South Philadelphia, a group of young boys pass the afternoon executing daredevil flips off a stack of old throwaway mattresses. A woman driving by, novice photographer Zoe Strauss, glimpses the small bodies somersaulting through the air. Startled, she pulls over, and winds up snapping seven or eight quick photographs.
PW's Music Issue 2014