Zoe Strauss’ towering images reflect city’s progress and people

The city of Philadelphia has become one big art gallery for the next 12 weeks.

As part of a new exhibition “Zoe Strauss: Ten Years” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a billboard company has donated 54 ad spaces for Strauss to do whatever she wants.

They are not ads. There are no logos, no text, and no explanation. There is nothing to put the images in context.

“No. 1 is the elimination of ad space. That’s No. 1,” said Strauss. “No. 2 is, I want people to take a lot of questions away and make their own narrative about it.”

At the corner of Passyunk and Reed streets, Frank Lynch was making his own narrative. He works at a nearby auto body shop and came out to watch journalists photograph a woman’s 300-square-foot image as it was installed on a billboard.

“I was wondering why they had so many cameras on it,” said Lynch, approaching Strauss on the sidewalk. “I live directly in back of that billboard.”

“Do you, really?” said Strauss, who loves to meet her neighbors.

“I thought my house was burning,” said Lynch. “I see all the cameras. People said, ‘Frank, they’re pointing cameras at your place.’ I’m all, ‘What?'”

“I live at 13th and Dickinson,” explained Strauss. “This woman lives across from me. It’s just neighbors on the billboard.”

“Oh,” nodded Lynch.

“And there’s a whole longer thing.”

Portraits ‘as big as Gibralter’

That “whole longer thing” is what makes this an art installation.

On the surface, the enormous, 12-foot by 25-foot photo is just Antoinette Conti, a 69-year old woman who has been living in a rowhouse at 13th and Dickinson for 49 years. Strauss lives across the street.

“She said, ‘You’re my idea of the neighborhood,'” Conti recalled. “‘You’re my idea of South Philly; Antoinette, I want to take your picture.’ I said, ‘OK, Zoe. Whatever you want, it’s OK with me.’

“Not knowing it was going to be as big as Gibraltar. But that’s Zoe,” Conti said

Conti is a second-generation Italian-American. She lives next to a first-generation Mexican-American named Fernando Trebino. In two months, Conti’s image will be replaced by Trebino. Both images are titled “La Corona,” which means “the crown” in Italian and Spanish.

That’s the story of South Philly, writ large.

Drawn from a decade of images

Strauss began taking pictures of her neighborhood, and posted them on the concrete columns holding up the I-95 freeway. During her annual “Under 95” do-it-yourself exhibition, she sold her photos for $5 each. That was 10 years ago. Since then, her pictures have taken off, now commanding thousands of dollars in fine-art galleries.

The 54 billboard images now on display around the city are images from that 10-year run, featuring portraits, still-lifes, and hand-written signs. Her fast and loose style is from the school of Henri Cartier-Bresson, with a keen eye for a “decisive moment.” They are not always easy to figure out.

“They’re up so that people will see them and make whatever narrative they want,” said Strauss in the back of a van traveling between billboards. “But for me, there’s very distinct connections between each of them and many different reasons for why they are all in place.”

Like an advertiser, she considers location, traffic, and eyeballs. At 15th and Vine, above the 676 freeway, she placed two images side by side. One shows a woman with her head thrown back in laughter, the other is an abstraction of lines and color fields.

“These were put here because I wanted two images,” said Strauss. “One easily legible and highly expressive that you could see while moving along 676, and the other is very quiet and really only legible if you are stopped or are a pedestrian.”

If you look carefully at the abstraction, you actually see a wall that has been partially painted over. Underneath the thin layer of paint–if you look closely–are the words “Take a Closer Look.”

Subtly rendering epic echoes

More than interesting visuals to challenge a cityscape choked with advertising, there is a deeper, more obtuse meaning to the 54 billboards: a narrative thread tracing a very abstract version of “The Odyssey,” the epic poem by Homer. But you’d never know that by just looking at them. Like the points of a constellation, the images take the shape of struggle, migration, and homecoming.

Near 30th Street Station are two billboards side-by-side. One shows a hand-painted sign Strauss discovered in a small town near the Gulf of Mexico recovering from the BP oil spill. It says “Don’t Forget Us.” It’s next to an image of a row of dilapidated inner-city homes.

“Those are the homes that were destroyed when the city bombed the Move house in the 1980s,” said Strauss.”The houses were rebuilt, substandardly. It essentially forced residents out on the street twice. It’s a very tragic story in Philadelphia. One that really matters in the history of the city.”

Many of the images are not pretty; some of them are downright strange.

“I’m sure were going to get a lot of calls, people wondering what’s going on,” said Gary Turner, an account executive with Clear Channel, which donated the billboards to the project. He worked directly with Strauss to coordinate the installation.

“I love the fact that Zoe doesn’t have copy on the boards. Advertisers could think about ‘less is best,’ which is how we strive to do,” he said.

An unlikely collaboration

Strauss describes herself as a staunchly leftist lesbian — a “pinko commie” she says, half-joking — and was at first apprehensive about working with the corporate giant.

“It’s the most insane collaboration,” said Strauss. “They have been so generous and supportive. I mean, this is not easy work. This is challenging and not necessarily palatable for everyone.”

The images can be read politically; they work as photojournalism. But Strauss is aiming for subjective, deeply intuitive images of people shaped by their particular environments. That’s why she started hanging pictures under I-95 in the first place.

“That was the body of my work for 10 years,” said Strauss. “This is a different take — but still directly related to the installation ‘Under 95.’ It’s just migrating.”

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