Lens on Philadelphia

"Mattress Flip Front," South Philly, 2001. This is the previously peripatetic Strauss' own neighborhood, home for 15 years. "I love it very, very much," she says.
"Mattress Flip Front," South Philly, 2001. This is the previously peripatetic Strauss' own neighborhood, home for 15 years. "I love it very, very much," she says. (ZOE STRAUSS)

Zoe Strauss, ultimate street photographer, captures life's beauty and struggles. The Art Museum is featuring her work in a major show - and on billboards around town. For a video, go to www.philly.com/zoestrauss.

Posted: January 08, 2012

When Zoe Strauss was growing up, she was on the move.

There were stops in Mayfair and the Northeast. Queen Village. Point Breeze. Logan Circle.

But now, after 15 years on Dickinson Street in South Philly - the longest she's lived anywhere as an adult - the photographer, who has a huge show of work about to open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, feels home. The rowhouses, the neighbors, everything on top of everything else.

Even the urinary activities of New Year's Day Mummery hold a kind of charm.

"We usually have just a bucket of soapy water by the door for any issues," she said the other day, sitting in the Green Eggs Cafe on Dickinson Street.

Yes, South Philly.

"I do, I love it very, very much," she said. "You know, I'm extraordinarily comfortable here. I'm comfortable in the city for the most part. In the mix. Despite the old structure of de facto segregation and the way that South Philadelphia has a strong history of racism, as all neighborhoods in Philadelphia have, and very significant ethnic differences that are also sometimes equally as painful as racism . . . this part of South Philadelphia has managed to be both integrated and to hold on to some of the structure of the original immigration."

For a self-described "lesbian anarchist," that sense of comfort is important, because at the moment it's been "crazy time" preparing for the show.

"Literally I'm going to claw the eyes out of my head," she said with a sweetness of voice that belied any allusions to Greek tragedy - we're talking simple stress here. "I keep thinking at some point I'll be relaxed. It will not be like an 18-hour day. It'll be like a 12-hour day. . . . No dice."

The show - "Zoe Strauss: Ten Years," curated by Peter Barberie, the museum's photography curator - opens Saturday for a run through April 22.

This will be no ordinary Art Museum effort.

For one thing, the extravaganza starts with a dance party on opening night.

And aside from selecting the roughly 170 images in the show, Strauss has somehow managed to get the museum to agree to sponsor more than 50 billboards all over town featuring her work.

"I can barely handle it," she said. "I'm so excited about it. It's unbelievable. It's unbelievable that this is happening. It's like a dream come true. . . . It's probably a three-hour drive to see all of them. They're all in Philadelphia in a number of different neighborhoods. No text. So each will be just a single image."

Instead of signage bludgeoning people to buy, these billboards will feature images: a hyper-close-up of "I love you" tattooed on a hand; bright red Mylar balloons stamped with sale prices; a mother and baby kissing; hills directly on the San Andreas fault.

Even the museum itself will serve as a Strauss vehicle: Her image of small boys exuberantly doing backflips off decrepit mattresses will grace the museum's west facade.

"It's totally art," she said, adding that all the billboards replace existing billboards. "There's a great pleasure that I have in that it's getting rid of a lot of advertising in the city landscape."

Strauss, 41 and only 11 years from the moment she took her first picture with a Canon that her partner and family helped her buy, has built a body of work that transforms the ordinary, often derelict and abused landscape of daily life into a vision with dignity, humor, and, often, pathos.

She is the ultimate street photographer, engaged with her surroundings at all times, and possessed of the modest ambition "to create an epic narrative that reflects the beauty and struggle of everyday life."

Strauss may be only a bit more than a decade into photography, but her work did not spring full-blown from nothingness. She began creating street installations in South Philadelphia in the 1990s, keen on the idea of placing art in everyday places.

And then the idea came to her, complete and whole:

Why not create an installation of photographs hung on the pillars beneath I-95? Why not do it once a year, briefly?

That's when she got the camera.

Her annual one-day I-95 shows began in 2000 and after a hugely popular decade- long run, ended in 2010. The show transformed the space. Actually, Strauss' great gift of empathy - for her subjects and for the world around her - propelled the transformation.

In discussing the forthcoming exhibition, Art Museum director and chief executive Timothy Rub lauded Strauss as "not only fully engaged with her world and all of its complexities - political, economic, social, and above all personal - but also determined to make something new and compelling of these realities."

Said Rub: "To share this with others requires a strong sense of commitment and a spirit of generosity, and it is fair to say that Strauss is well endowed with both. She has, from the very beginning of her career, focused both on social change and on the intersection of art and the public realm. Each of these is central to the way she defines her life and her work as an artist."

Barberie, the exhibition's curator, noted that the show will explore the "relationship between the city and the museum" and that Strauss "seeks to generate dialogue between the two, alerting viewers to the significance of the visual arts and of their own lives, and emphasizing their interconnectedness."

Meanwhile, things have been intense for Strauss, who has a tendency to run late - in large part because she finds it so easy to engage utter strangers, a key to the empathetic essence of her work. Being acquainted with her, no matter how slight or tangential the relationship, is akin to having an instant lifelong friend.

"I'm very happy to be alive," she said. "I do feel engaged and interested. I also love to be where I'm from. I love to go to work in the morning and to come home at night. . . .

"Even with the many difficult moments that we encounter - both as people and as a country, and as a neighborhood and personally - I feel engaged and interested. I also think it's important to talk about our lives with dignity and to not dumb things down, to allow us to be ourselves and to present ourselves as we are and to accept both great difficulty and gratitude.

"It's a hard thing, but I think I have it."


Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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