October 23, 2012
A little over three millennia ago, Homer’s Odysseus embarked on a now-famous ten-year journey from Troy to Ithaca. In the original story, the Cyclops and Sirens suggest a homecoming of uniquely Greek proportions, but over the centuries the tale has been the basis of everything from James Joyce’s Ulysses to the Coen brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Homer’s epic also provided the conceptual framework for the photographer Zoe Strauss’s recent mid-career retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Zoe Strauss: Ten Years.
The ten years in the exhibition title isn’t a strictly accurate marker of time but signifies the journey—an unusual one—that culminated in Strauss’s hometown retrospective. Strauss’s career as a photographer began later and more abruptly than many others’. On her thirtieth birthday, Strauss received a camera as a gift. She was not a trained photographer and had never graduated from college, but she immediately began to document the people and places of Philadelphia. Soon after, in 2001, Strauss began presenting her own solo exhibitions under an elevated section of I-95 in South Philadelphia. Every year around May, Strauss would affix her photographs to the concrete pillars of the highway overpass, the grey columns a substitute for the traditional white cube. Strauss did this every year until 2010, selling her prints for five dollars and engaging directly with her audience. Strauss was always present during these day-long exhibitions, signing her works.
The concept of I-95, as the project came to be known, was expanded with the Billboard Project (2012), a component of the retrospective. Channeling her Hellenic hero, Strauss called I-95 an “epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life.”1 Strauss took her photographs out from under the freeway and put them above it, expanding this epic to a larger scale. The piece comprised fifty-four billboards with her photographs on them from January to March or April 2012. Scattered throughout the Philadelphia landscape, these usual sites of commercial narrative now told the stories of people Strauss encountered on her travels throughout the United States. As if Venice Beach or Anchorage represented her Troy, Strauss was back in Ithaca to tell her story.
Though Strauss’s images intimately depict the joy, sadness, and malaise of everyday life, the photographs themselves are truncated versions of the real work—their symbiotic relationship with the city when exhibited on numbered billboards. Billboard 1, “La Corona,” featured a portrait of Antoinette Conti, a second generation Italian-American, above a cleaners on the corner of East Passyunk Avenue and Reed Street. By itself, the photograph is a nice portrait, a close-up of an anonymous frowning woman. It is not particularly striking. However, when viewing documentary photographs of the installation and approximating what a pedestrian or passerby would see, the image is quite strong. The scene is almost comical, not because the portrait is funny but because it is a far cry from what is expected in its place, amidst the brownstones and Dunkin’ Donuts. Ms. Conti stares out at the viewer as if she were begrudgingly hawking Budweiser, all-day deodorant, or a thrilling new Michael Bay film.
In many ways, Billboard Project resembles a guerilla marketing campaign—or those expensive, highly crafted simulations of guerilla marketing campaigns. Recently my own neighborhood was taken over by billboards ominously and ambiguously warning, “Ted is coming.” I soon found that Ted is just a pot-smoking teddy bear who is best friends with Mark Wahlberg. Like this advertising campaign, Strauss’s billboards carried no indication of what they referred to or what they meant; without further context, the cynics among us could run wild. And yet, a frequent traveler of Philadelphia streets might begin to notice scenes from a fractured story.
The almost ironic juxtapositions of “La Corona” did not dominate this narrative. On John F. Kennedy Boulevard near Thirtieth Street, a pair of billboards struck much more somber notes. Billboard 44 shows nothing but a spray-painted plywood sign nailed to a telephone pole, reading, “Don’t Forget Us.” Next to it was number 45, “6200 Block of Osage Ave, 2011,” a scene of several dirty and dilapidated homes overrun by ivy. My immediate association with these two images was Hurricane Katrina—in particular the handmade signs that littered neighborhoods in its wake and the homes it destroyed. In fact, “Don’t Forget Us” featured a photograph taken in Grand Isle, Louisiana, but “6200 Block of Osage Ave, 2011” uses an image that is unrelated, a scene from West Philadelphia. Nonetheless, commuters on JFK Boulevard likely may have overlooked these facts. Even without any idea of where these photographs were taken, a viewer senses something distinctly American about them, and that is their tragedy: from the Aleutian Islands to Puerto Rico, despair and decay can be found across the country.
But these obstacles are not insurmountable. Strauss’s American epic depicts a people as strong and resolute as Odysseus. Life in this troubled nation is not without laughter, dance, and expressions of love, as many of Strauss’s photographs depict. The final billboard in the project, number 54, gives away the moral of the story. To the side of an empty rural highway, a sign reads, “Stay Alive.” Whether this is the dictum of a transit authority bureaucrat or a crafty culture-jammer is not clear. Regardless, the message seems to be the same: wherever you are going, you can get there.
In some ways, it takes a lot of hubris, or at least chutzpah, to equate your work with Homer. It’s also a bit sensible. After all, Odysseus wasn’t a real man; it doesn’t take much courage to be a fictional character. Real epics are much less grand or romantic, their heroism more subdued and humble. These are the tales Strauss has documented throughout her burgeoning career, and they’re more real than any myth.