“If You Reading This, Fuck You,” reads the graffiti scrawled on a white garage door in a state of severe disrepair. The writer is anonymous but as in all of the photographs in Zoe Strauss’s mid-career retrospective, Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, the message is crystal clear. The overweight, the heavily—made—up, the nude, the tattooed: these are the subjects that proudly and defiantly peer at us through the neat frames encompassing Strauss’s images. These images have an audible presence; their subjects seem to leap from the artful compositions that attempt to contain them and scream: “Yes, we exist! Look at us!” In “Daddy Tattoo, Philadelphia” (2004) a young Amy Winehouse lookalike stares out at the viewer with weary eyes and a tattooed mouth and “Vietnam Hand, Philadelphia” (2001), is presented to us missing most of its pinky, upturned as though pleading for something (recognition? awareness? spare change?).
In an enclave in the exhibition—space Strauss’s images are stacked upon each other salon—style, forcing the viewer to take them all in at once. Their somewhat crowded, chaotic arrangement seems to highlight the theme that underlies the entire show: these people are not the exceptions, they are the masses. Ten Years is everything at once: it is beautiful and gruesome, subtle and brash, intriguing and repulsive. It is shocking, and perhaps most tragically of all, for so many people in the United States, it is absolutely ordinary. Though Strauss’s photography is aesthetically beautiful its real achievement is to remind us that we share this world with the many subjects that she depicts in her moving photographs. For Penn students in particular, these images represent a reality that is quite literally, just around the corner. With her work, Strauss breaks the invisible barrier that exists between the Penn bubble and the world beyond 45th that we’ve been thoroughly advised to evade. She forces us to look at bruised faces, syringes, stained mattresses and broken limbs and she does it so compellingly that we simply cannot look away.
Zoe Strauss: Ten Years Philadelphia Museum of Art 26th St. and Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. Now–4/22
Photos courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.