Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss exhibit gets up-close and personal

The billboard project was Strauss' idea. "I wanted to have a project that was both in the museum and in the city," she said.
The billboard project was Strauss' idea. "I wanted to have a project that was both in the museum and in the city," she said. (SARAH J. GLOVER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: January 13, 2012

HOW THE HELL does she do it?

Looking at one of Zoe Strauss' photographs, it's an easy question to ask. Strauss' great talent is being able to capture the intimate moments of total strangers - stark images mostly of working-class life, people and places rarely in the spotlight.

Take "Victoria's Hysterectomy Scar," a photo shot in Philly in 2004 that's part of "Zoe Strauss: 10 years," a midcareer retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art beginning tomorrow. Fifty-four Strauss photos also are displayed around town on billboards.

"Victoria" depicts a woman with a white halter top and a tired, no-nonsense expression. Her open pants reveal a dark scar from her belly button down her abdomen - like a zipper the camera somehow opens to reveal its subject. Strauss had never met this woman before getting her to expose such an intimate aspect of herself.

How the hell does she do it?

If you have the good fortune to meet Strauss, it all makes sense.

Strauss is a short woman who buzzes with energy and punctuates her sentences with exclamation points and well-paced expletives. "Oh. My. God." and "It's next-level nuts" are favorite expressions.

She seems to know everyone. Then again, she'll start talking with strangers as if they see each other every day. "She can't go to Target to pee without people coming over to talk to her," said Savannah Roberts, Strauss' younger sister.

"A psychiatrist told me I was a xenophile, a person who loves strangers. I think that may be part of the definition of what Zoe is," said Strauss' mother, Ilene Baker, a single mom who raised her daughters and two sons in various rowhouse neighborhoods, mostly in the Northeast. Strauss has lived in South Philly for 15 years.

The popular take on Strauss is that she's a savant - the first member of her family to graduate from high school - who picked up a camera at 30, after years of working as a nanny and housekeeper, and discovered an untapped talent.

"What the hell is that insanity? I think that . . . it's an easy narrative," said Strauss, now 41. She'd been doing multimedia pieces in public spaces for years before she came up with the idea in 2000 of presenting art in an ignored public space under Interstate 95 in South Philly.

Photography seemed the way to go.

"The photos were secondary, but it was important that they be as strong and evocative as possible. The photos were made to make it work," Strauss said. She bought a Nikon camera with birthday money and started shooting.

The I-95 project ran for 10 years, just as Strauss planned it. Once a year, she'd tape her photographs to the concrete pillars and sell them for $5 apiece. By 2005, the art world was taking notice. She got a Pew Fellowship that year, and a spot in the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2006.

"I think that Zoe's a major contemporary artist who happens to live in Philadelphia," said Peter Barberie, curator of photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "We want to be the first museum to give her that platform."

The billboards were Strauss' idea - a way to make her exhibit accessible for everyone. The 54 billboard images are different from those hanging in the museum.

"The museum is often seen as separate from the city, and that's based on where it is and that it's $16 to get in, which I think is extraordinarily expensive," Strauss said. "But the museum is of a great importance to me. I wanted to have a project that was both in the museum and in the city."

Sharing herself is one key to how Strauss makes her art. "People are interested in talking about themselves and interested in asking you about yourself," she said.

"There's something open about Zoe, and safe, so that people feel that they can show her that moment of honesty. It's not just showing someone lifting their shirt and showing a scar," Baker said of her daughter. "If you've seen her work, it's the honesty and expression on people's faces that blows me away."

Strauss is taking an active role in the exhibit. She'll be at the art museum many Friday and Sunday afternoons to talk with visitors. That's one of many nontraditional events related to her exhibit, such as a talk on how Bruce Springsteen has influenced her work (a lot), and dance parties, including one DJ'd by her brother Cosmo Baker.

"It's important to me to be physically present through the show, for my own pleasure," Strauss said. "Because the idea of this happening is unparalleled, and it will never happen again."

Strauss isn't sure that, once the exhibit's over, she'll continue taking pictures.

"I really would not put my money on Zoe taking photos in 10 years," said Roberts, her sister. "She's accomplished so much, but she couldn't have gotten where she is without Lynn standing right beside her."

That would be Lynn Bloom, Strauss' partner of more than 20 years. And her complete opposite - soft-spoken, with a career as director of merchandising for Mitchell & Ness, the athletic-gear company.

"It's like a yin and yang," Roberts said of the couple, who met through a mutual friend while Bloom was working at a Center City West Coast Video.

Strauss is the first to admit that Bloom is her anchor, supporting her financially and, more importantly, emotionally. Said Bloom: "The things that help her are when the people and situations she deals with are difficult and upsetting . . . when she comes home from that, we can change gears and not have that be everything that she's thinking. You have to have normalcy."

Bloom has a perspective of Strauss' work that few others share. "I can think of times when I've been with Zoe and she'll have her camera with her. I'll literally be standing next to her and not see what she's seeing," Bloom said. "But then she takes the picture and I see it. . . . She sees things in a way that nobody else does."

Roberts said her favorite moment during the decadelong span of the I-95 events was in the project's final moments. Roberts was working at a table selling Strauss' prints (these days, they go for as much as $3,000 for a large, signed print). People began to clap because the project that had launched Strauss' career was coming to a close. Strauss walked over to Bloom, and they embraced.

"Her and Lynn are just in the sunlight with a good 25 feet around them," Roberts recalled, "with people just letting them be."


"Zoe Strauss: 10 Years," Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, tomorrow through April 22. $16. For details about special events or to register to talk with Strauss at the exhibit, call 215-763-8100 or go to philamuseum.org.

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