Zoe Strauss discusses the art of photography during Germantown Friends School lecture

How do you become an intern for Zoe Strauss? That was one of the most pressing questions that Germantown Friends School students asked the renowned photographer who visited campus this week to present a lecture about her work.

The answer came with a caveat: Don’t expect a portfolio-building experience.

“The interning program is generally, just unfortunately, hanging out and talking a lot,” she laughed, urging interested candidates to email her. “After a grueling interview process, you’ve got to meet former interns, my sister and my mother first.”

Strauss, a Philadelphia native, recently opened a retrospective show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Zoe Strauss: Ten Years) and launched the Billboard Project upon unsuspecting neighborhoods across the city.

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A packed auditorium

During Wednesday’s art lecture at the Loeb Performing Arts auditorium, she shared her favorite moments along the way with a packed audience of middle- and high-school students.

Her speech was part of an annual lecture held in memory of Abigail Cohen, GFS Class of ’91 who was also an avid photographer. During the past 10 years, the school has invited comic-book theorists, installation artists, sculptors, painters and other visual- and performing-arts lecturers to GFS to lecture and offer students a glimpse into their lives.

“The goal is to get these kids who are very kind of verbal, left-brained in a way, scientists and mathematicians to get them to think visually and think critically about something that they’re looking at. It is really important,” said Susan Lowry, head of the school’s Art Department.

Strauss explained her big ideas for her signature work: a decade of hosting her own art museum beneath I-95 in South Philadelphia. There was a purpose to, and inspiration drawn from, that abandoned space, she said.

“There is a strip of light that runs down the center that, in May, begins at one [o’clock], it lasted about 15 minutes, but it was really very specific and important to me,” she said of light coming through the elevated highway overhead. “But if it rained, there would be kind of a sheet of water, that came down and divided the two sides.”

A Germantown connection

Only in Germantown, Strauss noted, would an audience understand that a photo of a green wall inside Nick’s Pizza along the 5800 block of Greene St. wasn’t just an abstract photo but a memory of the restaurant.

Strauss noted that the image is important to her work as an “anchor,” but has been over-intellectualized in most art circles.

“In truth, it’s just Nick’s Pizza,” said Strauss, noting that she loves the stromboli served there.

In the school’s art room, Strauss held a further discussion of art and fielded student questions. She said that an art background is not a requirement — Strauss is self taught — and that the messages are universal.

Iris Williamson, a GFS senior from Mt. Airy, said the message resonated. Being the verge of figuring out her future, and possibly moving out of Philadelphia someday, she said the billboard project gives her a sense of pride and place.

“Philadelphia will always be here. I guess your show is a nice homage to that,” she said, adding that her favorite photos were Nick’s Pizza and a photo of graffiti scrawl proclaiming “We’re Okay Mom” on the side of a parking garage.

Strauss said she plans to return to the art class to continue the discussion.

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