Patriot Acts

Philadelphia's Zoe Strauss presents a photographic vigil of an America struggling through the final year of the Bush Administration

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 15 | Posted Nov. 5, 2008

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"It's only in the last year that I feel like maybe I'm a patriot," Strauss considers, surrounded by photos taped all over the walls, startling portraits of strangers displaying their scars and tattoos, their pain and their pride, for her lens.

"Maybe I'm a patriot in the sense of both wanting America to be great and do the right things and because I love where I'm from," she says. "I've always had a distinct sense of being a Philadelphian, but not an American."

America is a jewel in the crown of Under I-95, a massive 10-year project Strauss launched in 2000 with an idea and a camera received as a birthday gift. Ultimately, all of Strauss' work to date--about 20,000 shots a year--is part of Under I-95, a project that's both an annual site-specific installation exhibit and an ongoing, ever-changing narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life in Philadelphia.

Every May since 2000, Strauss displays 231 images from her expanding galaxy of work for three hours in the parking lot off Front and Mifflin streets behind the Target store on Columbus Boulevard. Two-hundred and thirty-one is the exact number of available sides of rectangular pillars that support the arterial highway that curves above. Strauss has worked on the project almost every day for the last eight years.

Each year old photos come out or shift placement as new work is introduced to the pool. In this way, every installment is both a new narrative and an expansion of the previous year's story.

Since beginning I-95, Strauss' work has gained cred in the art world. She won a Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 2005 and the USA Gund Fellowship last year. Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York hosts solo Zoe Strauss shows. In 2006 her work exhibited in the Whitney Biennial. New York Times critic Roberta Smith and designer Todd Oldham (who connected Strauss to AMMO Books with a phone call) are fans. The Philadelphia Museum of Art houses Strauss prints in its permanent collection.

Still, laser prints sell for $5 each at the annual I-95 show and will sell for $5 through the last show in 2010. At the end of the show, prints taped to the pillars are given away. Strauss hasn't changed the rules or vision of the project, which she never expected to extend beyond the underpass close to her home in South Philly.

To Strauss, a photograph succeeds if it accurately records a real moment in time while simultaneously capturing its allegorical significance. Like the landscapes she found traveling, universal truth is an echo of the concrete.

Eight years in and with fancy exhibits and a book to put on top of it, there are no plans to rest.

"I'm just a full-throttle freight train to get to 2010," she says, fist in the air.

Strauss' vision steps in the work boots of an unlikely mentor for a feminist lesbian self-taught photographer: Bruce Springsteen.

Strauss' eyes go round as full moons when she's talking Springsteen. It's not just that she's a fan--and she's a fan, all right. It's the interlocking inner mechanics of Springsteen's oeuvre that inspires I-95.

She talks about the way he structures albums with songs that correlate to other songs so there's something in each album for new fans and deeper, more nuanced corridors of meaning for fans who have followed his work since the beginning.

In terms of presentation, she likes how his concerts are very tightly laid-out but allow for improvisation. Most important, despite addressing difficult aspects of the American identity, Springsteen's work is designed to end in pride and joy.

"It seems mental when you think about a big stadium full of drunken doofuses sometimes," she says. "And it's spectacular."

Zipped up cozy in a Phillies hoodie, Strauss is psyched as hell. She's excited about America, about Obama, about the World Series, about the upcoming companion exhibit "America: We Love Having You Here," about everything. A total spitfire, she's been giving the thumbs-up, calling everything "amazing" and cursing enthusiastically all day.

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Comments 1 - 15 of 15
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1. LEBOWSKI said... on Nov 5, 2008 at 06:55AM

“Hi Tara, Who would have thought that an education in the Pinelands of New Jersey would have yielded such an articulate and insightful wordsmith? Although your Dickensian paradoxes would probably weigh heavy on the ears of majority of liberal educators at your Alma Mater.”

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2. Jayne Doe said... on Nov 5, 2008 at 08:13AM

“you go zoe! you rightish powerhouse of DYN-O-MITE! Love, Jayne Doe, Former Ho”

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3. Anthony Smyrski said... on Nov 5, 2008 at 09:58AM

“How can we carry your book??”

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4. Zoe Strauss said... on Nov 5, 2008 at 10:27AM

“This is an awesome story... wait, it's about me! Tony, you can get my book from the publisher... or just email me. Thanks for such a great piece, Tara. This has been one of the greatest weeks of my life. This election marks a magnificent achievement for America and I am so proud of us and so thrilled for us. ”

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5. LEBOWSKI said... on Nov 5, 2008 at 10:27AM

“This is an awesome story... wait, it's about me! Tony, you can get my book from the publisher... or just email me. Thanks for such a great piece, Tara. This has been one of the greatest weeks of my life. This election marks a magnificent achievement for America and I am so proud of us and so thrilled for us.”

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6. true said... on Nov 5, 2008 at 02:10PM

“I hope your pride comes from the completion of your book, and not Barack Hussein Obama getting elected. That is nothing to brag about. Only the sheep who are not informed beyond the slanted media believe what they have been fed over the last four years. A black man should be elected based on his ability, not his color. Same goes for any other race. The facts are that McCain is a war hero with 30 years experience in politics, and Obama is a two term Senator who has never had his name on a piece of major legislature. He is a cereal box produced by the Democratic Party. A well spoken figure head who should know that his legacy as the first black president is a gray area, pardon the pun, considering his mother is white, and he is a Muslim. Wake me up in four years, and BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

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7. JJ in Seattle said... on Nov 5, 2008 at 02:54PM

“That's a nice touch using Obama's middle name, true. You're really creative, (sarcasm). Thank God you and your crazy friends didn't ruin my party last night because this country is on an amazing high right now, and bigots like yourself have no seat at our table. Good riddance to you, bigot! ”

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8. Bob J. said... on Nov 5, 2008 at 06:36PM

“Tara, Since you wish to make our society better perhaps you can take off your biased glasses and actually inform or remind the public about how to get to the real root cause of our economic troubles. You can start with researching Senate Bill S.190. The "Federal Housing Enterprise Reform Act of 2005". When the Liberal Media asked top Democrats this question, they would say the bill didn't pass and quickly change the subject . The reason the bill didn't pass was because the whole Democratic Party filibusted the bill. That's right the Democrats and the "Annointed One". What was the reason the didn't want to Strengthen Regulatory controls on Clinton's pet company? Because, they wanted to get Low Income (Sub-prime) voters. They did such a nice job ignoring their responsibilities that they Bankrupt about 90% of the people they were trying to help. Obama ran a fantastic campaign, and congradulations to thier party faithfuls. He is a fantastic orator and I wish him luck, but the Liberal Media was so biased they actually elevated the very party and (2005 Senator) that was part of the root cause behind the Financial Tsunami. McCain was right, but he was such a lousy speaker he couldn't get his message across. The Republicans have a lot of work to do, but the Democrats are mirror looks just as ugly. For those of you that think I am spewing a bias, please be reminded that Fannie & Freddy also bribed about 7 Republicans to get the bill cleared off the books (Rejected). Wonder where your 401K went.? Look up the history of the bill. How about it Tara do you have what it takes to be a Fair and Balanced person. Why don't you show some pictures of some Foreclosed Homes and a snapshot of someones previous life savings. If you can't ,I suggest you look up Rupert Kipplings poem "IF". You might learn something about integrity. The most ironic part of this election, is that McCains integrity actually cost him the election. He railroaded Republican efforts to eliminate the filibuster (20023). How is that for ironic!”

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9. true said... on Nov 6, 2008 at 08:18AM

“Oh? Using his middle name was as purposeful as the Democratic Party making sure NOT to use it. However you arrived at the notion that I am a bigot, I think the Kool Aid you've been drinking has finally gone to your head. I think "high" is an appropriate word to use considering that all you wanted to do slander me and innaccurately label me a bigot. Why not address the factual statements made in my comment with an intelligent dialogue backed up with facts. Of course there is no room for me at your table. It is teeming with welfare mothers, crack-whores, indigents, and every other pathetic scum with a sense of entitlement, stealing my tax dollars. I am not without empathy. In fact, I am a philanthropist, but as an American who works two jobs just to get by, I want the ability to choose whom I donate to. There is a word for the other way and it rhymes with Hommupism.”

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10. It's true. He's a Bigot. said... on Nov 7, 2008 at 01:02AM

“False. President-elect Obama, with or without the emphasis of his middle name, is what could best be described as a non-denominational Christian. However, whether Obama is a Mormon, a Buddhist, or is the second-coming of L.Ron-freaking-Hubbard himself, is inconsequential. Perhaps it would be in your best interest to take a gander at that supposed separation of Church & State issue. It must be difficult, I realize, what with the past Republican administration acting as the hand of god with it's Roman Catholic virtues under the guise of democracy. Second, you can "empathize" all you want, or throw your cash at that whatever charitable cause helps you sleep at night, but know this: No amount of money, earned, donated or otherwise can buy yourself free from bigotry. Third and last: Yes, bigotry. Because that's what you are, a bigot. A hateful, ignorant person hiding beind tax-deductable donations claiming slander. "Kool Aid and crack-whores." Yes, those are the words from a true philanthropist, a real humanitarian. And you have the audacity to speak of entitlement. How's this for a title? Bigot. ”

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11. Maragie Strosser said... on Nov 7, 2008 at 06:52AM

“I love your work and your photo brain child I-95 eight years in and going stronger and I love your attitude, and I love that you have made visual poetry out of south philadelphia - my home. YES YOU CAN! Margie Strosser”

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12. true said... on Nov 12, 2008 at 01:02PM

“False. Since we are not in school, and I am not discussing prayer, or removing the word "God" from our currency, separation of church and state had nothing to do with my argument. But once again, you can not speak to the facts I laid out. Well? A two term senator who has not been part of any major legislation or had any foreign affairs experience. Well? Can you? Can you stop distracting the question with empaticism about bigotry? I can be and I am a philanthropist. Just because I don't wish for my government to tell me who needs my money doesn't mean I am a racist. People who can get jobs, should not. Vets, injured defending our country who are disabled and can not find reasonable work, should. Mentally challenged people without families, should. People who reproduce indiscrimantely should not. There is not a bigoted bone in my body. Simply someone who has read their history books, studied economics, and believe in the principles this country was founded on? Do you believe the American Dream is to have countless babies with unnamed fathers and have hard working Americans pay for their government cheese and diapers? These people should be nuetered like animals. Oh, and if Obama is not Muslim, explain this picture. Remember, not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim. How about his ties to Ayers, a known domestic terrorist? And before you spout off your programmed response downplaying their relationship as having once served on a school board together, remember that two years ago, Ayers through Obama his coming out party in his very own living room. So. Stop with the labeling, and name calling, and say something intelligent and factual about these proven allegations.”

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13. true said... on Nov 12, 2008 at 01:04PM

“I was typing to quickly and would like to correct through with threw. Apologies.”

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14. true said... on Nov 12, 2008 at 01:09PM

“Sorry, one more thing. The Kool Aid comment had nothing to do with racism. You must equate Kool Aid with a beverage enjoyed by group of minorities. That is very racist. I was referring to Jonestown and the sheep that commited suicide following a crazy cult leader. Read your history books, get some original thoughts, and take your head out of your ass. Sheep. BAAAAAAAAAAA”

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15. Diane said... on Jun 24, 2012 at 12:24PM

“Ok, the racist card has been played on and on but now I need to ask, who are the bigots and what are they racist against...the white or black side of Obama?
Obama's heritage is replete with communists. His own mother and father as well as grandparents were so embroiled in communist organizations that they should all wear a red star on their clothing.
Oft times we have used the middle name of Presidents: FDR, JFK as examples so why is Obama and his pals so angry when Obama's middle name is aired. Is it so they refuse to admit that Obama comes from a clearly Muslim background and in fact Rev Wright, the 'so-called' Christian minister, was a Muslim until he 'converted'. His hate to which Obama listened to for many years seems to me no different that that of Louis Farrakhan.
Not once have I heard Obama give a litany of Christian thought but often I heard him extol the greatness of Islam. Or is it that I read more often than those who tinkle down their pants whenever Obama speaks?”


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