No, It’s Not Harry Potter; Yes, Photos Can Speak

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She was actually wearing an amazing pink velvet coat.

Did you know that Columbia has a building called the Lenfest Center for the Arts? Arts Editor Riva Weinstein feels like she probably should have, before she trekked all the way up to 129th St. to attend photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier’s talk, Art as Transformation: Using Photography for Social Change. Oh well.

LaToya Ruby Frazier speaks to us in many voices. One of them is Silvio, an elderly Sardinian man who worked for decades in the coal mine region of Belgium. Then there is his coworker, Emil; his boss, Antonio; and Jean-Claude, whose son died in a mining accident at the age of 9.

Over the course of her two-and-a-half-hour talk, many more voices enter the picture (or rather, emerge from it): the Cobb family, living with poisonous water in Flint, Michigan. Laborers at a collapsing steel company. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, Gordon Parks and more offer their opinions on the place of art in society. “It’s not my glory,” says Frazier in reference to a successful exhibit. “I am a messenger.”

Frazier’s stark black-and-white photographs explore the public and private lives of America’s forgotten people: victims of social injustice, health care inequality, environmental degradation, and the all-destructive path of American industries. She aims to reflect real life, the truth that is so often silenced by mass media.

A little girl prepares to brush her teeth with bottled water. A widow rests in the sun-bathed kitchen of the army barracks she has turned into a home. Frazier herself leans over a sink: her childhood spent in the polluted industrial town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, she suffers from lupus.

Every one of Frazier’s photographs has a story. Showing us a picture of the Belgian town where she worked and lived with mining families, she dives down into museums and catacombs, exploring the landscape of human memory. A photograph showing the Cobb family preparing for a wedding was only possible because of the six months Frazier spent in Flint, Michigan – getting to know the family, eating meals in their kitchen, working alongside them in the fight for clean water. In Frazier’s view, this kind of background work doesn’t simply supplement the final image: it’s because of her process that the photograph is art.

“I am not a journalist, I’m an artist speaking through photographs,” she tells us. What she means is: the ability to commission and exhibit photographs often lies in the hands of powerful news corporations, who always maintain some power to affect how the work is presented. Ideally, an artist should work independently of such authorities. Frazier shares how, throughout her career, she has pushed relentlessly for the ability to decide how she displays her photographs, the text she chooses to describe them, the people who get access to them, and the voices that accompany them.

Once, Frazier says, she locked herself in an Elle magazine office for hours – refusing to come out until she had recorded all of Shea Cobb’s spoken-word poem on the Flint crisis.

An artist should not approach a project as a “concerned outsider,” but as “a vulnerable and sensitive insider.” They should approach topics they have a personal connection to, build relationships with their subjects, and seek to portray people as they want to be portrayed, without imposing an agenda.

Frazier addresses the audience again and again. She addresses me, and the other young artists in the room. She demands: “What are you doing?” “Are you going to have the courage to promote cultural change?” “Whose approval are you waiting for?”

Her presentation leaves me with a strong admiration for Frazier’s life and work, but it also leaves me with questions. Certainly, her art is inherently political – but does all art have to be? If it’s the personal stories behind the photograph that give it value, does that over-prioritize authorial intent? Is it realistic to expect starving artists to resist the influence of their sponsor? And of course: can “real life” ever truly be portrayed through an image, no matter how intimate or sensitive?

It is real life with which is concerned Frazier’s final question to the audience: “How do you live a life that’s meaningful?” For Frazier, the meals she had in the Cobbs’ kitchen were more important than the pictures she took of it. The role of the artist is to live – to be a real person, fighting for positive change in society – and art is only a tool to enable that. (Or as a better writer than me, Stephen King, put it: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”)

You can view LaToya Ruby Frazier’s solo exhibition through February 25 at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, 439 West 127th Street.

Photo via Flickr

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