on 30 January 2009
Zoe Strauss is one of those photographers who casually accumulates hundreds of incisive and brilliantly composed photographs with apparent ease. Her first publication, America, is a clear-sighted indictment of the American dream finally woken up to the sad reality of suffering and deprivation on its own back door. But fortunately this vision is not without irony and wit, leaving the viewer at least some kindling for hope.
The opening shot of Vanessa, the cool-eyed transvestite, invites us into the book, seeming to warn us too that this journey's not going to be pleasant - certainly not what we might expect. From the fake uber-burlesque Amy Winehouse, to the twin tobacconists, to Victoria showing off her hysterectomy scar, everybody is either apathetic or shocked into submission, apparently indifferent to their fate. Even the "man shot in leg in Gurnsey" finds time to sit back on his stretcher for a calm consolatory cigarette while the medics carry him away.
It is clear from her introduction that Strauss allows these characters room to pose as they desire, so we have a set of clues about the personality of each one set against the neighbourhood where they live. Many of her subjects are involved in drugs or guns or overawed by life's urbanity. These themes are not new of course, but Strauss' images are refreshing and deftly avoid cliche. She displays her subjects against sparse backgrounds - wasteland, tower blocks, walls, dark space, overgrowth - so driving home the idea of restricted social and infrastructural environments, and leaving the viewer to add the biographical detail. One remarkable portrait is entitled Dawn, Philadelphia, PA. Dawn shows off a tattoo on her chest, her expression seeming to say "look what this place has made me do", and when we do look over her shoulder we see the peeling and grimy white paint of her wooden home, plastic flowers in the window, limp lace curtain. The ghost of Evans, Lange or Shahn moves in this picture. "Here today is the new Depression", Strauss seems to say.
Set between the portraits we have a collection of broken American symbols or signs: a crushed yellow MacDonald's M high on a pole, roughly daubed warnings and threats, shot-up fridges in the desert, a full frame close up of scratches on a surface somewhere in Indiana, half a house seemingly split apart by a chisel, smoke stacks ominously looming from behind a field of golden corn, dismantled signs with "satisfaction guaranteed" and "the future starts here" visible only as vestigial stains. All these images add up to a sense of futility, as if everything of quality is winding down and promises of the nation's greatness are being rescinded daily, one by one. It's an apocalyptic vision, reminiscent of Dylan's Desolation Row where "the fortune telling lady has even taken all her things inside"
The book moves restlessly around the States, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Nevada, looking for a reprieve to the hopelessness but never finding it. As befits this restlessness, there is no discernible order to the images and they pile one on top of the other, much in the same way consumer culture of America accosts its citizens.
Here is an exceptional first publication from a young photographer with political nous and understated visual wit. Think of Frank's The Americans uncut, uncensored and replete with colour. All this, and it comes at a refreshingly modest price.