LaToya Ruby Frazier: Photography on the Verge of Catastrophe

Good photography perturbs. It makes you look, scratch your head, think about it, think about it some more, then look again. This is what the photos of LaToya Ruby Frazier do. 

Momme (Shadow), from Momme Portrait series, 2008, from The Notion of Family (Aperture, 2014) © LaToya Ruby Frazier

When I first came across LaToya Ruby Frazier's work, I was not quite sure what to make of it. I was not immediately convinced of the strength of her photographs. I found it difficult to place her practice, to understand it in any kind of framework, to visually or conceptually make sense of it. But the images stayed with me, almost angrily demanding my attention.

The more I looked at Frazier's work, the more I read about her projects, the more I realised that it consists of so many intersecting layers that it blows the mind. At first sight her work deals with poverty. It would be easy to consider her as yet another socially concerned photographer in the tradition of say the FSA photographers. But whereas these practitioners would be on the outside looking in, Frazier herself is part and parcel of the story she wants to tell, as are her family and the larger community of Braddock, a former steel town near Pittsburgh. Comparisons with say Richard Billingham or Nan Goldin, who have also shown their families and communities with no holds barred, suddenly come to mind.

At second glance Frazier deals with the various chronic conditions of her family members as well as her own disease. This links her practice to the work of Jo Spence and others who have documented their own illnesses, as well as the work of say Leonie Hampton and Philip Toledano, who have captured the physical and mental decline of their loved ones. But since Braddock's steel industry and its subsequent dismantling has directly or indirectly contributed to the poverty and the poor health of her family and community, Frazier ends up chronicling the decline of her home town as well. In that sense her work could be compared to Julian Germain's Consett - Steel Works, Paul Graham's Beyond Caring, and more tangentially to films and television series such as Kes, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Boys from the Black Stuff, and Our Friends from the North.

Left: Self-Portrait March (10:00 a.m.), 2009, from The Notion of Family (Aperture, 2014) © LaToya Ruby Frazier. Right: Home on Braddock Avenue, 2007, from The Notion of Family (Aperture, 2014) © LaToya Ruby Frazier

But whereas most of these works deal with the disappearance of traditionally male working class jobs due to deindustrialization, Frazier’s is a lone voice describing the impact this has on women. As the issue of race compounds Frazier's situation even further, the work done by Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson comes to mind. But understanding Frazier's photographs just in the light of all of these references do not do her work justice.

In order to understand Frazier's work, it is necessary to make use of a concept formulated by Ariella Azoulay in her ground-breaking work A Civil Contract of Photography. Frazier wittingly or unwittingly operates as a photographer on the verge of catastrophe. According to Azoulay: 'To photograph what exists on the verge of catastrophe entails one's presence at the onset of a catastrophe, looking for its eventuation, that is, being able to see it as an event that is about to occur. [...] Beside the direct and eruptive violence that occurs in being on the verge of catastrophe, another kind of violence is widespread, one that is withheld, suspended, while still clearly intensifying its effects on the lives of the people against whom it is directed.'

Left: The Bottom (Talbot Towers, Allegheny County Housing Projects), 2009, from The Notion of Family (Aperture, 2014) © LaToya Ruby Frazier Right: Grandma Ruby and Me, 2005, from The Notion of Family (Aperture, 2014) © LaToya Ruby Frazier

The role poverty plays in her work cannot be understood separately from globalization, deindustrialization, class, health, race or gender. By being a photographer on the verge of catastrophe, and by explicitly showing the effects of direct and indirect violence, Frazier is able to tackle important and complex issues without having to simplify or reify, and without falling into the trap of narcissism or navel-gazing.

About LaToya Ruby Frazier

LaToya Ruby Frazier (born 1982, Braddock, Pennsylvania) received her BFA in applied media arts from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania (2004) and her MFA in art photography from Syracuse University (2007). She also studied under the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program (2010–2011) and was the Guna S. Mundheim Fellow for visual arts at the American Academy in Berlin (2013–2014).

Frazier works in photography, video and performance to build visual archives that address industrialism, rustbelt revitalization, environmental justice, healthcare inequity, family and communal history. In 2015 her first book The Notion of Family (Aperture, 2014) received the International Center for Photography Infinity Award.

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