Eleven years ago, a man committed suicide in the Duncan Hotel on Chapel Street. He began by trying to kill himself in his bathtub, and, failing in that, staggered blood-soaked through his room to a window and threw himself onto the sidewalk below.
Six years later, when MFA student Angela Strassheim heard the story, she decided to find the man’s room, douse it in luminol, turn out all the lights, and take pictures of the glowing sprays of blood still clinging to the walls.
The photos Strassheim took that day fit well with many of her other graduate works: one gazes down from atop the Art and Architecture Building onto a pool of blood, circled off by police tape blurring in the wind. Another captures five men bound with duct tape and shot in the head. The simplest and most gruesome is a close-up of a bonesaw still crusted with red gristle and hair.
What’s perhaps most shocking about these photos, however, is not their content but their context. Strassheim’s most macabre pictures blend right in with the rest of her MFA pieces: a Boy Scout learning to tie knots, a child washing a woman’s hair, an empty living room scene, an aquarium. Although these works may initially seem wildly disparate, Strassheim unifies them with her coolness and her ability to treat all objects, from the most shocking to the most mundane, simply for what they are. Strassheim’s even, down-to-earth attitude — pinned as “austere” and “dispassionate” by reviewers — stems from a wide variety of life experiences, including everything from rebelling against an evangelical upbringing to working as a crime scene photographer.
A picture-perfect Midwesterner with blond hair and a bright face, Strassheim grew up in a born-again Christian family in Minnesota. Throughout her childhood, she went to a church where she covered her hair before entering, and men and women sat on separate sides of the aisle. She was taught that one day God would visit her in the middle of the night and she would be converted. If she died without being saved, she would go to hell. “I was so afraid of dying,” she says.
But, as her pictures suggest, she didn’t stay that way. When she turned nine, she says, “I was like, ‘What the hell is this family?’” Her growing detachment from her family and religion helped her to develop her photographer’s eye; rather than participating, “I was always looking, always watching,” she says. She candy-striped at the hospital where her father worked, and while she was there she would visit rooms where patients had recently passed away. Though her father would shoo her out, she wanted to know where the deceased went: “I wanted to see that.”
After she barely graduated from high school, her parents encouraged her to go to a community college to become a dental hygienist. Rather than learning to clean teeth, however, she took art classes and eventually switched over to a private art school. While there, she tested her limits for working under extreme conditions. To try her sense of smell, she left meat out until it grew maggots. To probe her squeamishness, she befriended an entomologist and learned to raise flies and other insects. Her class projects included creating clothes out of animal by-products (one outfit was constructed almost entirely out of cockroaches). With each nauseating task she tackled, she steeled herself for her future work and learned to react to the world differently from other photographers.
Perhaps what makes her work most distinctive is her unusual training. After graduating, she signed up for a forensic photography program in Miami that took her on a 10-month whirlwind tour of the discipline. Strassheim not only photographed crime scenes and morgue bodies, she also performed surveillance (“I had to learn to pee in a bottle”) and even trailed SWAT teams. On drug busts, she photographed on-site suspects even as they cursed and spat at her. “It was the best job I ever had,” she says. She enjoyed it so much that she moved to Virginia afterwards to continue forensics.
Luckily for the arts world, however, her next job turned out to be “the worst job I ever had,” so much so that it pushed her out of forensics and forced her to once again pursue her unusual brand of art photography. She began by putting up a show of portraits in a local coffee shop, and despite the show’s monetary failure — “No one bought anything!” æ the process kickstarted her new career. She quit her job and worked as a freelancer before moving to New York and applying to graduate school. Though Strassheim blundered about with little knowledge of the art photography world, people recognized her talent quickly and she was accepted into several programs. Choosing a graduate school was difficult, as she didn’t know much about the schools. “It was between Yale and Cranbrook,” she remembers. “But then people would say, ‘Where’s Cranbrook?’ and I was like, ‘OK.’”
At Yale she began to bring her chilly forensic vision back to more personal projects and, in doing so, created the work that would put her on the map. She had a difficult time connecting with peers at Yale — “I didn’t have many friends… I showed them my work and they were like, ‘We don’t want to see that’” — and it was made more difficult by the fact that she spent much of her time shuttling to New York to work part-time as a forensic photographer in the wake of 9/11. Despite these problems, she found mentors at Yale in professors like Tod Papageorge, Director of Graduate Studies in Photography, who says he admires her “unpredictable way of thinking about photography and, through photography, the world.” When she photographed her family on a lark over a break, it was Papageorge who saw these photographs were “onto something powerful” and who encouraged her to focus more seriously on bringing her distinctive eye to bear on domestic subjects.
These photos, with their odd mix of a detached-outsider aesthetic and a blood-kin comfort with the subjects, snagged the eye of Marcello Marvelli, owner of the Marvelli Gallery in New York, who invited Strassheim to participate in a group show. Afterwards, she remembers him pulling her aside to tell her that he was “embarrassed” to have squished her in with so many other artists in the crowded exhibit. He offered her a more prestigious solo exhibit in the same space, which she happily took.
Now, Strassheim has come full circle and lives in Minnesota again, where she has won a windfall of artist grants and received more gallery show offers from across the state. Still, in the wake of the success of her family photography, she remains tied to her earlier forensic work, following passions before marketability. “I can’t sell myself,” she says. “For me, it’s just about the work you make.”
She plans to go to Israel to photograph for four months this summer. But before that, she hopes to break out the luminol again and take pictures of murder scenes in Minnesota.