LaToya Ruby Frazier is an advocate. Through her work—in photography, video, and the written word—she’s made visible the untold stories of her hometown devastated by the loss of the steel industry; a family in Flint, Michigan, affected by the water crisis; former miners of Le Grand-Hornu in Belgium; and her own family.
She realized the potential of her artmaking when she saw Gordon Parks’s photograph American Gothic for the first time. Realizing that she could craft social commentary in her practice was a revelation. That pursuit earned her a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2015; exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, and the ICA in Boston; and several shows in Europe.
Early this year, she opened her first show in New York since 2013. Taking over three floors of Gavin Brown’s enterprise in Harlem were three bodies of work: “The Notion of Family” (2001–2014), “A Pilgrimage to Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum” (2016–2017), and “Flint Is Family” (2016–2017).
Whitewall spoke with Frazier about the power and beauty in honoring other people’s humanity.
WHITEWALL: What initially attracted you as an artist to work in the mediums of photography and video?
LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: What attracted me to the mediums of photography and video as an artist were my influences while studying at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and Syracuse University with mentors like Kathe Kowalski, a photographer and writer committed to photographing women in prison, families living below the poverty line in Erie, Pennsylvania, and her own mother’s illness and death. At Syracuse, where we had a cross-disciplinary program, Transmedia Studies, I studied with filmmaker Mišo Suchý, who taught me cinéma vérité and experimental documentary filmmaking with a particular emphasis on the Maysles brothers, who believed in empathically observing people. Albert Maysles was a graduate of Syracuse in ’49. These particular encounters gave me the sensibilities that appear in all my bodies of work. I love to memorialize and commemorate everyday working-class people.
WW: At what point did you see the potential of using the camera as a weapon, as described by Gordon Parks?
LRF: I realized the potential for using the camera as a weapon as described by Gordon Parks in his autobiography A Choice of Weapons  when I first saw his photograph American Gothic  in my photography class in 2000 when we were given an assignment to show a photograph with what Roland Barthes called a punctum (the thing that pricks you) and a studium (the subject) in a photograph. When I saw Parks’s American Gothic  that portrayed Ella Watson, a black woman holding a mop and a broom in front of the American flag in a government office in Washington, D.C., that was the moment it hit me. I could speak, make social commentary about America through a photograph! It was a revelatory moment as I struggled to find my voice and vision as the only African American student in my photography class.
WW: How did your family initially react when you told them you’d like to capture them in your work focused on your hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania?
LRF: My family and I never had a formal discussion about me making photographs. There was no formal proposal. I simply started coming home during semester holidays and breaks with my 35mm Nikon FM10 and quietly began making photographs following the instructions of my instructor to make portraits and landscapes. Living at 227 Holland Avenue in Braddock with my grandmother, who was taking care of her stepfather, Gramps, in the house and my mother living approximately six houses over, and my younger cousins living above me in an upstairs apartment, it seemed natural to me to quietly observe them and make portraits of them all. The Maysles brothers believed that people who are overlooked in society, people no one pays attention to, if you turn a camera on them they will naturally engage the camera. With my mother, this was absolutely true. My grandmother, on the other hand, was reluctant to appear in images, although she cooperated a few times. She believed that I should photograph myself, and it is to her credit that I began making self-portraits in addition to photographing her and my mother.
WW: You’ve said how you didn’t have a family photo album growing up, so this project has become them, even though these images might not be the kinds of photos most families might want to show. What has your family’s relationship with the photographs been?
LRF: I started photographing my family in 2000, and by 2001 it was expected that I would be coming home with my camera, film, contact sheets, and 8-by-10 resin-coated prints. Both my grandmother and mother would either frame or tape my photographs on the bedroom walls, refrigerators, or hang them in our living rooms. By 2003 I had already designed a small handheld flipbook the size of a Polaroid of the first two years of our photographs, where each chapter was based on Grandma Ruby, Mom, and Gramps. I did not understand then the full magnitude of what would become “The Notion of Family.”
WW: How has over a decade of telling the story of Braddock, Pennsylvania, affected your relationship with your mother?
LRF: Contrary to popular belief, photographing people you know intimately is not an easy task. My mother and I have gone the distance of great growing pains together. There were times when she felt I was using my images against her and other times she commanded me to make certain portraits of her to prove a point that who she was then is not who she is now. I’ve always believed that producing the portraits with both my mother and grandmother was a detox and transformation for me to get through the darkness and bondage I felt in Braddock, Pennsylvania. I wanted to strip away the negative images that the local media created in my mind about African Americans in my hometown, therefore each photograph I made got me closer to my future self, to becoming what I needed in order to simply be.
For the first time in 2018 during my debut exhibition at Gavin Brown’s enterprise this past January and February, my mother and I were able look back at our portraits and see and know that we have stripped ourselves of our former nature and defied the odds. For the exhibition, we created our anniversary portrait Momme 2018, a remake of Momme 2008 from a decade earlier. With our noses, lips, and eyes almost aligned, it signifies how we took courage and remained steadfast in the midst of all the hatred, brutality, injustice, and inequality we have endured as black working-class women from southwestern Pennsylvania. Our bond and camaraderie are fireproof.
The debut solo exhibition with Gavin Brown’s enterprise marked the nine-year anniversary of my Grandma Ruby’s death in UPMC Braddock Hospital and one year since my mother beat almost dying on life support. My grandmother died from pancreatic cancer, my mother suffers from an undiagnosed neurological disorder, and I myself have been battling Lupus most of my life. My book The Notion of Family  and my video DETOX Braddock UPMC  are what led me to the doctors that ultimately saved my mother’s life this past year. A large following of doctors emerged around my traveling exhibitions the past five years citing our portraits and videos as a visual medical art. During the new edit of “The Notion of Family” at Gavin Brown’s enterprise in Harlem, we held programming where I was in conversation with the doctor who saved my mother’s life, Dr. Esa Davis, Associate Professor of Medicine, Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Pittsburgh and a board-certified practicing family physician with a focus in women’s health, who particularly holds workshops once a year to help medical students learn how to engage with patients suffering from poverty without prejudice or bias.
WW: You also gave your mother your camera to photograph you, wanting to show that it’s not only the elite and those who went to college or university who can capture the disenfranchised. Why was that important for you to show?
LRF: The act of giving the camera to my mother to photograph me as a subject was vital to our photographs being a bridge between theory and everyday life. I stand on a core value and belief that all theory is useless unless it is applied to daily life. I firmly believe that experience is a criterion for knowledge, period. In America it is the people who have suffered grave inequity at the mercy of industrial capitalist corporations and our government that possess knowledge on how to make a better and just society we can all live within.
WW: What have been some of the challenges of working on a project for over a decade?
LRF: The challenge of working on the same subject matter for over a decade is how to keep the photographs dynamic and interesting to the viewer over that extended period of time. For me, the challenge was to strategically plan how I would unveil this body of work to the public, which led to my decision to remove one layer at a time about one place, one family, one body. I specifically used the platforms of large group exhibitions my works were invited to in order to reveal all of the layers; first came the portraits, then still life and videos, then landscapes, then aerial views and social political protests, conversations, and performances. The challenge was learning how to enable multiple entry points into my work for different viewers about the same body of work and subject matter over a decade.
WW: Your work not only tells the story of an overlooked town, people, and history; it tells the story of the women in your life. Why did you also want to focus on women for your recent series “Flint Is Family”?
LRF: I’m frequently asked about the lack of appearance of men in my work. My short answer to this is that absence is presence. My family goes back four generations in Braddock, Pennsylvania. In that time period all of the men in my family either served in the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Marines. “The Notion of Family” starts with Gramps, my Grandma Ruby’s stepfather. In “The Notion of Family,” Gramps is the symbol of the Great Migration North and the pride of working for U.S. Steel. His death pictured in the beginning of the book is The Notion of Family’s foundation. It is the brute fact that under the perils of capitalism it is the constant death or destruction of our men that leave women isolated to fend for themselves. This is absolutely true in my family and of my particular generation in Braddock, Pennsylvania, where the men in our households if not killed in war or the steel mills by the time the War on Drugs raged through our community our men were killed by police or sent into the prison industrial complex. Therefore, absence of men in “The Notion of Family” is their presence. Women appear in both “The Notion of Family” and my latest body of work, “Flint Is Family,” as the concept of time itself. We all function and point to a time period or how time is the changing-same. Each one of our bodies points to a different generation and era in American history. We are markers on a timeline.
“The Notion of Family” focused on three generations of women because my grandmother, mother, and I were born and raised in three different socioeconomic periods in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Grandma Ruby witnessed Braddock’s prosperous days of department stores, theaters, and restaurants. Mom witnessed the steel mills close and white flight to suburban developments. I witnessed the War on Drugs and the demise of my family and community. Between our three generations, we not only witnessed, we experienced and internalized the end of industrialization and rise of deindustrialization.
In “Flint Is Family,” three generations of women—Renée Cobb along with her daughter and granddaughter, Shea and Zion—each have to make difficult decisions regarding how they will adjust to living with lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, Vehicle City. On a similar path of the Great Migration, Shea Cobb’s family migrates to Flint, Michigan, from Mississippi and New York City. Renée works for General Motors, Shea is a school bus driver, and nine-year-old Zion is trying to understand why she can’t drink water from the school water fountain. The mental and physical toll the poisonous Flint River takes on this family of three generations of women results in Shea and Zion moving back South to Mississippi, where her father owns land with freshwater springs sprouting from the ground. It is truly a story about the current situation of African Americans reverse-migrating back to the American South.
WW: You’ve said, “I hope that viewers will take away that we are living in a crucial moment where the socioeconomic shift from industrial labor to the knowledge economy in Rust Belt America is leaving an important part of our society behind.” This idea, it seems, is largely overlooked, especially in the 2016 Presidential election. The story of those in the Rust Belt is often of working-class white Americans, not black Americans. Is that something your work considers?
LRF: I am intentionally and mindfully building a visual archive that will weave bodies of work that visually unite the working class and show proof of its diversity in America. The divisive tactic of pitting the white working class against all other workers of color is what vexed me the most about the previous election. My work most certainly portrays that the working class is not synonymous with whiteness. It is a tired, divisive tactic that enables racist politicians to hide behind campaign rhetoric. My work will not succumb to such foolishness. My body of work “And From the Coaltips a Tree Will Rise” [2016/2017] created and produced in the Borinage, the coal mining region in Belgium, parallels the Trump/Pence slogans “Trump Digs Coal” or “The War on Coal,” and counters this entire narrative and empty promises that Trump made to coal miners in America. I achieve this through rendered photolithographs, photographs, and texts of retired coal miners in the Borinage who spoke directly to me with the U.S. elections and coal mining narrative in mind.
WW: You’ve been traveling to Belgium and developed a relationship with the coal mine towns there, spending time with the people and listening to them, which culminated in the book And From the Coaltips a Tree Will Rise. Can you tell us about what you’re finding and what it’s like to look get to know such a foreign city? Are there connections you see to Braddock or Flint?
LRF: This past year I completed a body of work entitled Et des terrils, un arbre s’élèvera (And From the Coal Tips a Tree Will Rise) [2016–2017] at the Museum of Contemporary Arts of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation located in Le Grand-Hornu, a historic coal mining site in Belgium. Grand-Hornu was built by industrialist and coal mine owner Henri De Gorge between 1810 and 1830. The architecture of the site is based in a neoclassical style and is surrounded by 450 homes built for the workers. At the center of the site is an enormous statue of Henri De Gorge with a nearby underground burial site that contains a rotunda of enclosed coffins of De Gorge and his family members.
Upon my research and observation of this site, it struck me that history only praises the industrial capitalist and romanticizes industrial infrastructure. Seldom does history pay homage and respect to the fallen workers, their wives, or children. The MAC’s museum is located atop the remains of this coal mine site and inside the infrastructure. As an artist born and raised from a steel mill town with a working-class, impoverished background, it is important for me to stand in the gap between working-class and creative-class people.
My arrival to the MAC’s came by way of an invitation by the museum director and the education department, who were familiar with my artwork and wanted me to do a residency and mount an exhibition of my time there. I requested to meet with coal miners and their families to learn about their work, labor, and history in the region. In the spirit of Studs Terkel, and accompanied by a translator, I went on a journey through the coal mine region of the Borinage inside the homes of Belgian, Italian, and Turkish coal miners.
I was an outsider, a stranger in the village that didn’t speak their language, initially met with skepticism. The miners wanted to know why a black American woman came to visit them. I was also confronted and told that contemporary art is useless and furthermore that the MAC’s could care less about the history and labor of the miners in the surrounding region. I took the strong sentiments as a challenge and responded with a proposition to work together in order to produce a show that would honor their lives and commemorate their labor, migration, family history, and memories working underground in the mines.
My encounter with the miners and their families resulted in a 51-piece series of photolithographs, with hand-written cursive texts that I wrote in French detailing their oral histories, memories, work, and labor in the coal mines. Once the show was mounted, the miners took over the exhibition, running workshops, demos, tours, talks, and interviews educating the public about how their physical work shaped and molded the mountains and hillsides of the Borinage. What appears to be beautiful tree-lined mountains in this region at first glance are actually coal tips created by coal miners’ hands. For the first time, the miners’ grandchildren, sons, daughters, and wives learned about how they immigrated, migrated, were born and raised in Borinage, and how coal mining provided opportunity for their education and future. It was common for miners never to reveal to their loved ones how dangerous their jobs were and how many lives were lost.
I’ll never forget what one miner told me when I asked if they missed the coal mines and wished they were open again: “It’s a bad time for America with Trump. It’s not possible to reopen the collieries. It’s like going back to the Middle Ages. It’s slavery. Personally, I wouldn’t vote for Trump.”
Whether it’s the history of steel in Braddock, automobiles in Flint, or coal in Borinage, a historical element is always necessary in my work for the fact that it proves people are more important than profits. Industrial capitalists are not more valuable or more important than workers, than human life. Like the trees growing from the coal tips replenishing the air, generations of the working-class will continue to evolve and outlive industrial capitalism.
WW: The photos you took for the New York Times on a trip with Abigail DeVille to the desert shrine of Noah Purifoy were beautiful and haunting. What did you take away from that experience?
LRF: You see, I went looking for Noah, but I couldn’t find him. I stood atop Blair Lane in Joshua Tree in the High Desert on ten acres of land with my camera and film recording how the stars, the moon, and sunlight fell on the ancient symbols and codes of cultural residue that Noah left behind.
While there I kept meditating, asking myself, what’s the value of black life? An elder black man in the last 15 years of his life forced out into the wilderness, priced out of L.A. and viewed as an outsider by the art world, this man who fought in World War II for America, fled racism from Alabama in the South, and wound up in the High Desert, where he created his own universe on a desert mountaintop.
What I learned and took away from the pilgrimage to Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum is that the condition of black life in America can strangely be found in the scientific concept of dark matter; a gravitational force not fully observed or understood, like a missing mass of black holes and stars to dim to observe. Black life in relation to western colonialism and capitalism on earth remains in a perpetual state of displacement. What Noah left behind on this desert mountaintop may have hidden in it the answer to the fact, as James Baldwin put it, nothing under heaven is fixed on earth.
WW: What are you looking ahead to for 2018?
LRF: In 2018, I will be producing a multiplatform exhibition to be unveiled in 2020 with individuals and families that have suffered socioeconomic devastation under the current administration.