New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 31 July 30 to September 10, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Momento Mori
LaToya Ruby Frazier
A Haunted Capital
John D. Roberts

Photo by Latoya Ruby Frazier . Source:
Latoya Ruby Frazier, "Shadow (from the Momme Portrait series)" 2008.

“I'm a human being and my life has value and I refuse to be erased.” With these words Latoya Ruby Frazier introduces the work currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum. Her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania was the site of Andrew Carnegie's first steel mill, completed in 1875. As a result of the continued out sourcing of steel production, the years have not been kind to Braddock and its residents. Crystal clear black and white portraits and landscapes explore the day to day life of Frazier's family as they exist in a town teetering on the edge of oblivion.

While the idea of a middle American ghost town may be where Frazier's story begins, the real point of interest here is Frazier herself – for her style of familial documentary is one in which her presence in front of the camera is just as influential as her presence behind it. These images show the bond shared among three generations of women as they struggle to deal with the chronic illnesses connecting them both to the Steel Mill and to one another––Latoya with Lupus, her mother and grandmother with cancer.

Photo by Latoya Ruby Frazier . Source:
Latoya Ruby Frazier, " Shadow (from the Momme Portrait series)" 2008.

A self-portrait taken with her grandmother depicts the two women looking back over their shoulders at the camera, the young Latoya hiding the shutter release cable behind her back. In the background sits Grandma Ruby's collection of porcelain dolls, ironically immune to the weathering of age. Latoya recalls Ruby braiding her hair and affectionately calling her a “champion doll.” Images of her grandmother's environment, are included: the used stovetop she cooked on, the recliner she sat in, the changeless dolls she so cherished, and even the debris on her carpet. The family portrait titled “Grandma Ruby, Mom and Me” captures one of the last moments the three shared together: Latoya and her mother standing over Ruby's casket.

Sickness permeates the Frazier family portraits, and after every Lupus attack Latoya did her best to take self-portraits. We see her mother after surgery as well, struggling to clean her bandaged torso. The family images are coupled with renderings of Braddock's tortured landscapes, their bodies crumbling alongside Braddock's abandoned buildings, with the family members themselves relics of the town.

Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier . Source:
LaToya Ruby Frazier, "Grandma Ruby and U.P.M.C. Braddock Hospital on Braddock Avenue" 2007.

Worn facades and litter–strewn ruins surround humble homes dusted with snow. Notably present are portraits of U.P.M.C. Braddock Hospital – just as much a character in this work as any of the living. The interior is first introduced in images of Latoya's grandmother cleaning her ailing husband's backside as he stands from a wheelchair. The hospital's exterior is presented in other images taken at various points in its recent history, straight through its closing and eventual demolition in 2010. With so many in the community afflicted from exposure to the steel mill, the hospital's closing brought Braddock to the brink. The portrait “Mr. Jim Kidd” shows the half demolished hospital in the background as Jim holds a sign that reads, “U.P.M.C. Is Race-Based, Class-Based Health Care.” An image of a street mural nearby seems to respond ironically with the banner: “The World Is Yours.”

Frazier's documents represent the relationship between a place and the people that occupy it. In a world ruled by decay, perhaps she sought to prevent the inevitable by preserving their family in the only way that she could: through photography. While it would be easy to see only the sickness and decline of an American town and its residents here, one cannot help but be moved by the characters that survive. Finally, Latoya Frazier's work leaves viewers questioning their own impact: what debris will they leave behind? What artifacts will be evidence of their existence?

LaToya Ruby Frazier
A Haunted Capital

Brooklyn Museum of Art
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Tuesday, April 16 to
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