LaToya Ruby Frazier is an American artist and professor of photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From Braddock, Pennsylvania, Frazier began photographing her family and hometown at the age of 16, revising the social documentary traditional of Walker Evans
and Dorothea Lange
to imagine documentation from within and by the community, and collaboration between the photographer and her subjects. Inspired by Gordon Parks
, who promoted the camera as a weapon for social justice, Frazier uses her tight focus to make apparent the impact of systemic problems, from racism to deindustrialization to environmental degradation, on individual bodies, relationships and spaces. In her work, she is concerned with bringing to light these problems, which she describes as global issues.
Speaking to The New York Times
about her position, Frazier said: "We need longer sustained stories that reflect and tell us where the prejudices and blind spots are and continue to be in this culture and society... This is a race and class issue that is affecting everyone. It is not a black problem, it is an American problem, it is a global problem. Braddock is everywhere."
Frazier has been extensively educated in photography through education at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania (BFA), Syracuse University (MFA), the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program, and she was the Guna S. Mundheim Fellow for Visual Arts at the American Academy in Berlin.
The photographic work of LaToya Ruby Frazier includes both images of personal spaces, intensely private moments and the story of racial and economic injustice in America. Her work includes raw portraits of friends and family members in intimate moments and examples of social injustice. As Frazier explains, "the collaboration between my family and myself blurs the line between self-portraiture and social documentary"
. Often her work focuses on the plight of her home town of Braddock, Pennsylvania which became financially depressed after the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970–80s. With black and white photographs, Frazier highlights the beauty of Braddock and how this town has impacted her family's life along with other residents. Her still photographs have a raw sense of strength and vulnerability juxtaposed in an honest and personal way. Besides working on her most famous work Notion of Family, Frazier has worked with other contemporary issues such as the Flint water crisis. This particular project depicts and focuses on a young woman and her family living their everyday lives amongst the crucial water conditions within their lower-class Flint community. She recently contributed photographs to a New York Times project, Why America's Black Mothers and Babies are in a Life-or-Death Crisis
Informed by documentary practices from the turn of the last century, Frazier explores identities of place, race, and family in work that is a hybrid of self-portraiture and social narrative. Her primary subjects of these portraits are Frazier's Grandma Ruby (1925-2009), her mother (b. 1959), and the artist herself. The crumbling landscape of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a once-thriving steel town, forms the backdrop of her images, which make manifest both the environmental and infrastructural decay caused by postindustrial decline and the lives of those who continue—largely by necessity—to live among it. As Frazier says, "I see myself as an artist and a citizen that's documenting and telling the story and building the archive of working-class families facing all this change that's happening, because it has to be documented."
Through her own family she has been able to recount the history of Braddock by way of the generations who experienced it. Her work begins dialogues about class structure, history, and social responsibility.
A 2018 special issue of Atlantic Magazine featured aerial photography and an essay by Frazier documenting the impact of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.
on the landscapes of Memphis, Chicago and Baltimore. Frazier's work was featured in the 2019 New York Times Magazine Money Issue for her photo essay on the people of Lordstown, Ohio after the General Motors plant shut down.
Frazier’s radical empathy has brought her to places whose occupants have every reason to distrust outsiders. She photographs communities gutted by unemployment, poverty, racism and environmental degradation, seeking out subjects dehumanized or ignored by the mainstream media. At 39, she sees her life’s work as an archive of humanity, one that particularly documents the courage and diversity of blue-collar workers and the consequences of the policies that condemn them to struggle. For her, this is what it means to be a patriot. “I am showing these dark things about America because I love my country and countrymen,”
she said. “When you love somebody, you tell them the truth. Even if it hurts.”
Socially conscious artistic practices may be in vogue these days, but Frazier goes beyond hollow claims of “raising awareness”
with an essay in a magazine or a show at an art museum. She is the rare photographer who approaches relationships with her subjects as lifelong commitments, and who tries to make substantial, material differences in their lives. Frazier’s conviction in art that involves — and transforms — entire communities aligns her with Rick Lowe, an artist who, with his collaborators, famously converted an underserved swath of Houston into a nexus for housing, art programming and neighborhood development activities. She also carries on the legacy of the German artist Joseph Beuys, who believed that participatory art could heal society. Frazier, though, pursues these conceptual ideals while still producing formally elegant images using traditional techniques. Working mainly with a medium-format camera and black-and-white film, her intimate domestic portraits and expressive landscapes are classically beautiful, even when they depict harrowing realities. Making photographs as poetic as they are political is, for Frazier, a way of honoring her subjects. “She doesn’t pop in and pop out,”
said the artist Carrie Mae Weems
, Frazier’s friend and early mentor. “These are long-term projects that deeply matter, not only to her but to the community and, ultimately, I think, to the nation.”
Source: The New York Times