The Notion of Family, LaToya Ruby Frazier
Review by Jennifer Bullock and Barbara Patrizzi, Independent Pennsylvanians
Artist LaToya Frazier’s courageously direct look at the racial, economic, and environmental injustices of a dying mill town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is so moving, it is worth every moment of the journey she takes us on.
With this photo documentary, Ms. Frazier gives us personal photographs of herself, her mother, her family, and her community to give us a powerful look at the impact of our country’s collective looking away.
With an unflinching and unsentimental eye, LaToya Frazier explores the complexity of relationships, pain, and a town’s decay on multiple levels simultaneously. She juxtaposes the personal, familial, and societal struggles taking place in her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvanian. The book serves at once as a stark but beautifully rendered family portrait, as well as a testament to the collective history of her troubled hometown.
The site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, Braddock was built largely by the toil and hardship of the African American’s who labored there, and suffered generations of physical, societal, economic, and environmental degradation. The photographs, and brief poem-like accompaniments, serve to bring us face to face with a world that many of us would not otherwise have the notion to embrace or appreciate on our own: a notion that Braddock is part of our own family – the human family, and we should not and cannot afford to avert our gaze.
What is strikingly original about Ms. Frazier’s photographic style is the bold and brave refusal to heroicize or glamorize her subjects (often herself, as there are many self- portraits here), or to make the images of urban decay more palatable to a mainstream audience by the use of stylistic techniques. Unlike, for example, the photographs of Mary Ellen Mark, who’s widely acclaimed Streetwise (also an Aperture publication), portrays her homeless teen subjects with an almost Annie Leibovitz-like style of portraiture. Even the iconic photos of Dorothea Lange, one could argue, disproportionately lean towards portraiture, and spare us from the harshest consequences of the agricultural calamity of the Dust Bowl.
Ms. Frazier’s work also treads confidently into the issue of environmental justice. Since its birth in the early 70’s, the mainstream environmental movement has suffered from an almost complete failure to take action around the concentration of environmental degradation and pollution in poor, predominantly non-white communities. However, the last few decades have seen strong African American leaders demanding focus on this issue, and giving voice to the urgent need for these communities to become active participants in the environmental justice movement. Ms. Frazier’s photography touches heavily on this issue, illustrating the powerful forces that make the fight for environmental and health care justice such a daunting, though absolutely necessary, uphill battle.
Even in the digital age, if not for Aperture, the publisher of our finest photographic essayists, we would have virtually no widespread recognition for this type of work. They do a characteristically fine job with The Notion of Family, and the interview with Ms. Frazier, and accompanying essays by Laura Wexler and Dennis C. Dickerson contribute immensely to a further appreciation of this stunning new voice in American photography.
As we both have lost our own mothers recently, we found the depiction of the female family bond, the love, conflict, and loss to be extremely, almost unbearably powerful and moving.
Crying as we read and reread Ms. Frazier’s statement in The Notion of Family:
“Looking both inwardly and outwardly I desire to move beyond boundaries. Similar to Annie, Lucy, Xuela, all heroines from a Jamaica Kincaid novel, I am in search of a new space, place, and time. There is a tight pressure and sharp piercing pain in my chest. The lack of deep sleep has not worn off. I feel a sense of imbalance.”
As leaders with independent Pennsylvanians, we are in search of a new space, place and time to push against the imbalanced political system and the two-party strangle hold on fair elections. We are working to create electoral justice in our home state of PA, from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, and all the towns, dying and flourishing, in between. Thank you, LaToya Frazier, for your courageous vision and so beautifully giving us your / our heavy heart.
Politics for the People Conference Call
With LaToya Ruby Frazier
Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST
CALL IN NUMBER