On Monday evening, photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier — the recipient of a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship — gave a lecture at the School of Art.
Frazier discussed her sources of influence and inspiration, as well as the ways in which she sought to be independent in an art world made up of institutions, galleries, investors and corporations, all with their own vested interests. During the talk, Frazier discussed theorist Richard Florida, explaining that Florida’s book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” continues to exert a negative impact on artists, who are “co-opted by corporations and the government to do the dirty work.” Frazier also suggested that “no one sits down in art school to critically assess the language used to describe cultural production today.”
“What I find disturbing is that artists … often do not understand the models that are used to talk about the economy and the culture industry,” Frazier said.
In his opening remarks, Robert Storr, dean of the School of Art, noted that Frazier’s work is characterized by “additions, text, commentary — things that are not considered ‘straight photography.’” Later in the discussion, Frazier said that her art continually engages with social and economic issues. She demonstrated over the course of the lecture how her work developed from “innocent, quiet portraits of family members” to an exploration of photography’s “political dimensions,” which Frazier defined as akin to “a social contract between you and your work.”
Emphasizing the importance of her hometown, Braddock, Pennsylvania, to her practice, Frazier spoke extensively about the devastating effects of the steel industry on the town’s inhabitants — not least of all her family members, the subjects of “The Notion of Family,” a series of photographic portraits. In the work, Frazier foregrounds the impact of industrial pollution on the town, and on the bodies of her grandparents, who were forced to live with constant exposure to the harmful byproducts of steel manufacturing. She also talked about the racial dimensions of Braddock’s environmental and social issues, in particular, the Bunn family’s experience of redlining and discrimination when they tried to purchase vacant lots around their home and ran up against a corporation that surrounded their yard with white containers of industrial waste.
Introducing her more recent work involving Braddock, Frazier moved from the demise of the steel industry to the decline of the town’s health care system, mentioning the closure and demolition of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Braddock Hospital.
She also criticized the false rebranding and romanticization of Braddock in billboards and commercials advertising Levi’s jeans, and showed photographs documenting an event at the Whitney Museum of American Art, during which she hung up the billboard and invited participants to cut up and destroy it.
Frazier also spoke extensively about her education at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University and the Whitney’s independent study program, where she was exposed to a diverse range of scholars, artists and writers such as David Harvey, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, H.D. Buchloh and Alfredo Jaar, all of whom she said were instrumental in shaping her understanding of cultural production and the politics of representation.
John Edmonds ART ’16, who attended the lecture, said he thought Frazier’s most compelling message was about “artists telling their own stories, and having resources and spaces to tell these stories.” Edmonds also said he found Frazier’s stories about the importance of receiving support from one’s colleagues especially meaningful.
For Arnold Gold, a photographer working in Fairfield, Connecticut, it was particularly interesting to hear another artist speak candidly about her own work. Melanie Stengel, a New Haven-based photographer, said she was struck by “the idea of social responsibility in photography, and the relationship of the photographer to his or her subject” as a constant problem that photographers have to address.
During her lecture, Frazier acknowledged the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 4 assassination, and ended her presentation by quoting from one of his sermons.