"I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve," photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier told a crowd at Aperture in New York last night. "I've waited for this moment ever since I stepped foot in Aperture when I saw the historic timeline that used to be back on that wall. I used to come in and look at it and think, 'I want to be on that timeline one day.'" Since picking up a camera in 2002 as a teenager living with her mother and grandmother (her first subjects), Frazier has more than earned a spot on that timeline.
Frazier grew up in the post-industrial town of Braddock, Pa., an impoverished area near Pittsburg with a large elderly population who suffers from the combination of numerous health issues and insufficient care. From age 17, Frazier has used her photography to expose the harsh realities of her hometown. Through black-and-white silver gelatin prints, her images have given a voice to the long ignored Rust Belt. Last year, she exhibited her photos from Braddock at the Brooklyn Museum for a show called "A Haunted Capital." Previously, her work was featured in the Whitney Biennial.
Last night, Frazier was joined by another photography heavyweight, Dawoud Bey, whose large-scale portraits of teenagers earned him art world recognition in the '80s. The two appeared for a talk at Aperture for the release of Frazier's first book, The Notion of Family, the culmination of a 12-year project of photos from Braddock and text written by Frazier. "It's not just a photo book or art book," Frazier stressed. "It's a history book. This is a historical document, and it has to reach father than the art scene and the photo scene."
Speaking with Bey, Frazier revealed that The Notion of Family actually started with another book—Braddock, Allegheny County, a 2008 release from Arcadia Publishing that's part of a series called "Images of America." When Frazier flipped through the paperback, she said, "I realized that all African Americans were omitted from the history," and because the book is part of a series, she guessed that this was happening in local editions across the U.S. The erasure of black people from American history sparked her to create her own book. "What if I made a family album or a book of images about the images Americans don't want to show?" she asked herself.
Frazier wanted her photography to be revealing, to make people look at the hardships and trials that everyone goes through but insists on keeping hidden. She compared her work to the social documentary photography of Jacob Riis and Gordon Parks, men who worked for the government, and their images inspired policy changes. "I don't think you should turn or look away from these realities," Frazier said of this kind of photography. Even Bey was struck by the potential impact of Frazier's photography. When he first saw her work, he saw a photographer who "was using the medium in a way that suggested how in fact photography might continue to engage the larger social world."
The Notion of Family took so long for Frazier to complete because she felt that a voice was missing from the narrative. She finally found this missing voice in the words of historian Dennis C. Dickerson, a scholar who had worked in the steel mills in Braddock and who was the first person to reveal that African Americans were in Pittsburg working the mills since the 1870s. Dickerson contributed an essay to The Notion of Family that Frazier says, "frames all these photographs and my writing as well." Always looking beyond the photograph or text, she said, "I see my work very much as education. I'm definitely a teacher. My work doesn't stop once it's up on a wall or in a book. It keeps going with talks and workshops I do about these issues."
At the end of the talk, Frazier half-jokingly said that The Notion of Family would be a trilogy. She described her next project, which she said might become the second book. When Frazier's mother and grandmother were young, the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny (which was more of a community center than just a library) was off-limits to black people. In her new project, Frazier is talking to people who were alive during this time and capturing their stories of discrimination through photos and text. One man who was never allowed to swim in the pool wanted his photo taken in the dilapidated space where white people used to swim. Her project is an attempt to remember this era. "You shouldn't be able to take peoples' histories away from them," Frazier said. Bey agreed: "That is what we attempt to do through our work, to reclaim these spaces and these histories."
You can purchase The Notion of Family from Aperture here.