New York Photo Review
Volume 5 Issue 2 January 14 to 20, 2014

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Reality Shows
Zoe Strauss
10 Years
Susan Sermoneta

Photo by Zoe Strauss . Source: icp.org Zoe Strauss, "Mattress Flip Front" 2001

I first saw Strauss's photographs at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in 2008. Strauss was there, a smallish woman in jeans and a zipped-up sweater, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, no makeup. She was talking to a group of men, explaining who the people in her photographs were, how she had made an effort to know these people – at least enough to make them feel comfortable and to visit and photograph them where they were comfortable and in the poses they wanted to take for her.

Photo by Zoe Strauss . Source: icp.org Zoe Strauss, "Daddy Tattoo, Philadelphia" 2004

The people in her images are people I wouldn't usually meet or make eye contact with. There's "Monica Showing Black Eye," 2006: a young woman's face, one eye blackened, the whole side of her face bruised. Because she's pulling her hair back to show her bruises, I feel invited to look. This is a young woman who must be in pain, and she wears it outwardly. She's the same young woman we see wearing lots of makeup and a "Daddy's Girl" tattoo on her arm in the earlier 2004 picture. And she's the same woman who, Strauss discovered, died a few years after that 2006 picture. Strength isn't enough, but we already know that.

I wonder if Strauss is behind the camera when she shoots. I imagine the camera on a tripod, and Strauss engaging directly with the people she photographs. (I hesitate to say "subjects," a word that objectifies and depersonalizes people in photographs.) These people feel "real" in the way Diane Arbus' people feel real and they always make eye contact with the viewer. Some are named, some not. Even without names, they become real because they have such strong presence.

Photo by Zoe Strauss . Source: icp.org Zoe Strauss, "Two Women, Camden, N.J." 2006

While Arbus invites us to look at the "other," Strauss's subjects don’t feel "other" as much as "wounded." Take the image "Two Women Camden 2006": one woman's forearm has several scars and a few scabs – she's obviously a cutter. Her arm drapes around a younger woman, and both look at the camera. The younger woman has her head tilted back, giving her an air of confidence, or arrogance. The older woman has the hint of a smile, as though pleased to have her picture taken.

Another especially striking image is "USA Las Vegas, NV. 2005 Man nude on bed." The location appears to be a cheap motel room made of cinderblock where a man, perhaps in his 50s, perhaps 40 pounds overweight, is stretched across a bed, propped on one elbow, one leg straight, one leg bent under his thigh. A grey sock is all he's wearing. In the center of the image is his penis, flopped on its side, flaccid. Black pants are on the floor at the foot of the bed, in a pile where he stepped out of them. He looks straight at the camera. It feels like he's looking at you, the viewer. He looks at me, but first I look at his crotch. He seems devoid of any self-consciousness and I find his presence strong rather than vulnerable.

Photo by Zoe Strauss . Source: icp.org Zoe Strauss, "Ken and Don, Las Vegas" 2007

The people in Strauss's images are people we might not talk to – what would we talk about? Are they like us? Are we like them? And anyway, would they want to talk to us? Even when there are no people in them, Strauss's images suggest narratives––private narratives in the sense that my imagination does not "make up" stories for them. Rather I believe these people exist and have stories that they're living at the moment they're being photographed. They have wounds that may or may not heal and seem to bear their pain without self-pity.

Zoe Strauss
10 Years


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