The artworks in Riveted challenge the legacy of twentieth-century documentary photography from the social documentary of the Farm Security Administration to the reputed objectivity of street photography and the man-altered landscapes of the New Topographics. Frazier incorporates historically divergent methodologies through formal resonances and by focusing on the craft and process of photography as much as critical discourse and cultural meaning. While traditional social documentary is predicated on the capacity of the photograph to objectively depict social conditions, Riveted presents a body of work that is fundamentally subjective, but no less factual. Each photograph is a document of a very localized experience that interrogates, decenters, and displaces dominant forms of representation.
Furthermore, in her collaborative self-portraits, Frazier rejects essentializing stereotypes, whether of mother and daughter or of low-income African Americans. Instead, she highlights the process of image-making to call attention to the photograph as an act of representational agency. Some photographs, such as The Bottom or Home on Sixth Street and Washington Avenue, might at first glance, appear to have been made by a passerby, but each space is charged with personal associations that make the landscape intimate rather than disaffected. As a member of a community enduring social and political inequity and environmental toxicity, Frazier uses the camera not just to raise awareness of her presence but also to exercise the agency of the archive, creating a record of the particularities of her position and its relationship to cultural injury.
Politics of Place
To date, LaToya Ruby Frazier has only made photographs in Braddock, a crumbling place still populated with real people. Located nine miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the site of Andrew Carnegie's first steel mill and public library, the cultural and economic life of Braddock is rooted in a once-booming industry that barely exists today. The artworks in Riveted make clear that the environmental impact of steel production has dramatically affected the lives of residents not able to escape the pressures of economic abandonment, disenfranchisement, and systemic racism.
In Landscape of the Body (Epilepsy Test), Frazier visually and inextricably links her mother’s body, ill from industrial pollution, and the caved-in remains of a recently-closed hospital. Her series of lithographs, Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save our Community Hospital), protests the destruction of the hospital while refuting the efforts of Braddock mayor John Fetterman and Levi's Go Forth advertising campaign to recast Braddock as a virgin land, empty and ready for settlement by a new class of American pioneers.
Frazier figures the place of Braddock not as the shadow of what it once was, but as the charged space of an unequal and systemic assault on real people. Rebutting the idea that Braddock is unpeopled, her portraits often feature the equally political space of the domestic. The picturing of private space and the people it houses serves to remind us of what is at stake in any discussion of politics. Throughout Riveted, Braddock is figured as a place where homes are allowed to become ruins and community resources shutter, as advertising campaigns parade an aesthetic of economic bust exploiting the same brick structures that Frazier pictures without losing sight of the people most affected. The politics of representation and the political realities of environmental racism cannot be disentangled from the sites in which they are played out.
LaToya Ruby Frazier significantly figures the human body in the contours of deteriorating Braddock and interior spaces. The work featured in Riveted emphasizes how industry locates the body as a source of expendable labor. Frazier’s Self-Portrait Lying on a Pile of Rubble, for example, explicitly visualizes the struggle against the disciplinary power of Braddock’s steel mill. The Edgar Thomson Plant continues to mark the physicality and fragility of the human body as it still pumps out mercury-filled smoke clouds that linger above the city. The presence and absence of life fluctuates through images where bodies are visible or invisible but evoked in deserted landscapes like The Bottom or Home on Braddock Avenue. Such an inextricable linkage between the singular and communal body to the economic shaping of space prompts more nuanced considerations of experience and frustrates the supposed autonomy of the self.
Yet, individualized experience is not lost in Frazier’s demand to recognize oppressive homogenizing effects and consequences of Braddock’s steel industry. Frazier purposefully situates herself and her family at the intersections of home and city to call attention to the emotional, the familial and the personal. How do everyday encounters with Braddock offer an intimate humanity elided by the city’s public image? Creating images by collaborating with her family, Frazier considers how figures enact a preservation of shared intergenerational histories. Bodies fuse with, or double, or triple each other and the landscape; they rip away at the very fabric of Levi’s; they serve as disturbing evidence of bodily degeneration, still leaving space for moments of tenderness that accompany how family endures in memory.
Intimacy flows through LaToya Ruby Frazier’s work like breath throughout the body. Silhouettes of the artist and her mother in poses ranging from sentimental to confident capture brief moments imbued with familiarity. The women gesture to the birds that decorate the bed sheet screen of their shadow box theater as well as to each other in performances of their embodied selves and of their close relationship. Here are the signs, hints, and suggestions of life lived despite decaying homes and expansionist, one-sided redevelopment. Verdant ivy spreads over an abandoned brick house; its rich black tone contrasts with the grayness of the surrounding overgrown vegetation and the whiteness of wildflowers blooming in the front yard. A house with two old cars in its side yard remains standing in a neighborhood encroached upon by large white industrial storage bags filled with shredded rubber tires.
And like the breath, there is movement. A representation of the Huxtables, the upper middle-class African American family from The Cosby Show, placed within a real-life mother daughter portrait, juxtaposes fiction and reality. In the background, a mirror cloudy with smudges reflects the distance and contradiction between the representations of lived experience. Meticulous handwritten text by Frazier discredits printed press campaign propaganda. These touches of intimacy breathe life into Frazier’s work, which is, in some ways, an act of meditation. Through the closeness of observation, one can bear witness to the artist’s firsthand accounts with aspirations for alternative ways of being as opposed to sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.