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