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Photos Reveal World of South Philly

January 18, 2007 By:
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Save Gram's Butcher Shop," by Zoe Strauss

Lining the walls of photographer Zoe Strauss' dimly lit South Philly studio are images of people and places that have seemingly been left behind by the city's economic resurgence -- pictures of abandoned buildings, discarded mattresses, and a seemingly confused elderly woman on the street, wearing a robe and slippers, and clutching a dog.

"My work really isn't documentary; it's not a literal representation. But the feeling of a shifting South Philadelphia is there," said the 36-year-old, who in two years has gone from an unknown to a fixture on the local art scene. "I'm interested in photographs that happen in the moment, that are spontaneous, but also have a formal feel to them."

Sitting on the floor of the row home that serves as her studio, she continued: "I'm more into everyday lives that aren't being seen, but are very common. Many of my subjects are looking directly at the camera, and have been asked to pose however they want. That's a fairly standard formal procedure and format for a portrait. That's not typical street photography."

Strauss, the oldest of four siblings, grew up in Center City and Northeast Philadelphia; she's lived in South Philadelphia for more than a decade. She grew up attending Hebrew school and services at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, although she never became a Bat Mitzvah and does not consider herself religious.

But she added that for her, the idea of Jewishness amounts to her entire cultural milieu, as well as to familial ties. "It's your id, your ego and your superego. There you go -- it's your whole thing."

A graduate of Girls' High School, Strauss did not attend college, and instead worked for roughly 15 years as a nanny. Lacking any formal artistic training, she nevertheless said she's always been interested in the visual arts. For her 30th birthday, she received a 35-mm camera -- a gift that appears to have changed her life.

Not long afterward, Strauss completed her first outdoor installation exhibit, placing more than 200 of her South Philly pictures on the pillars beneath a two-block stretch of I-95. She has done this once a year for the past six years, although she never inquired about a permit for it.

Strauss' fortunes changed in 2005, when she applied -- and received -- a $50,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trust to pursue fine-arts photography full-time.

"That's more money than I made in my whole life. That's a gazillion dollars to me," exclaimed Strauss, who for the past 18 years has been in a relationship with another woman.

She left her babysitting job, purchased a studio about a mile from her home, and then continued to have a run of good luck. One of the people who reviewed her grant application happened to work for the Whitney Museum in New York, and decided to include some of the artist's prints and slides in the museum's Biennial exhibition, one of the New York art world's premier events.

She's also had her work displayed at the Institute for Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In addition, a group of student filmmakers connected to the institute are working on a documentary about her artistic process, and are hoping to enter it into the Philadelphia Film Festival.

While her two-year grant runs out this summer, she doesn't seem all that worried: "I'm not into the commodification of art. I'd rather just be able to do the work."

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