In the fall of 2001, South Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss first displayed a series of images on concrete columns beneath a vacant, elevated section of I-95. Then 31 years old, she lacked formal training, hadn't attended college and had owned her 35-mm camera for a little more than a year.
But she dreamed big.
An autodidact armed with vast knowledge of the history of art, photography and literature, Strauss envisioned a long-term, evolving, epic project — inspired partly by Walt Whitman's classic Leaves of Grass — that documented working-class people and places and began a conversation about the use of public space. In this case, that meant turning a blighted urban area into a gallery.
"I think images have great power. Despite the shift in technology and the way we view things, still images have a great resonance," said the photographer, who has a major exhibition opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Jan. 14. "The photograph is made to talk about ideas, vision and critical thinking."
From 2001 to 2010, Strauss displayed her chronicles of neglected, down-and-out sections of Philadelphia, Camden and other places — usually about 200 images — in one-day, annual exhibits held beneath the interstate, in the Pennsport section of the city. (She never sought any kind of permit to do this.)
At first, just a few people showed up, but the word soon spread, and the show became an event. Soon, she started to draw the attention of the art world. In 2005, she won a $50,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts; the next year, her photos were included in a exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Yes, she dreamed big, but not quite this big. The Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit, titled Zoe Strauss, 10 Years, runs through April 22. It's a selection of 170 images distilled from the hundreds that comprised the I-95 project.
Peter Barberie, curator of photographs at the museum, called Strauss's I-95 installation, "one of the most important art projects, art works, of the first decade of the 21st century."
In a recent interview at the museum, the 41-year-old Strauss couldn't hold back her joy.
"As I started to work on the project, it became central to my life. I'm just so appreciative to be able to do the work that I'm doing," said Strauss, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and Center City and attended Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, though she never became a Bat Mitzvah.
According to Barberie, Strauss's work has formal elements and is heavily influenced by classical portraiture. She often zeroes in on a subject and asks him or her to strike a pose.
At the same time, he said, her work falls within the far more rebellious, almost improvisational tradition of American Street Photography, which developed in the last century as a distinctly urban phenomenon in which artists sought to hold a mirror up to society.
"Her originality comes through in her determination to engage with people and places in very intimate ways," he said.
Her work often shows her subjects at their most intimate and vulnerable, sometimes literally displaying their wounds, revealing their naked selves, or surrendering to one addiction or another. Her subjects include crack addicts, prostitutes and a man with a swastika tattoo. Many of her images confront the viewer, daring them to look at the unpleasant side of life.
"Desire for redemption was a theme I hadn't really explored or thought deeply about at the beginning of 95, but as I moved forward, I found it helped connect hope, fear, disappointment and desire," she wrote in an essay.
More than any photo she'd ever taken, she wrestled with whether or not to show "Swastika Tattoos." The symbols revolted her.
But she decided the image served as an extreme example of how people may view themselves one way and present themselves quite another. The photograph's subject said he didn't hate Jews and only wanted to show pride in his ethnic heritage.
During the interview, Strauss came across more like an eager student or intern rather than the featured artist. With her free-flowing, warm demeanor, it was easy to see how she gets her subjects to reveal themselves.
Strauss said she worked closely with the museum to use the exhibit to speak to a younger audience and help lower the barrier between the general public and the rarified cultural institution.
For starters, the exhibit is kicking off on Jan. 14 with a dance party in the Great Stair Hall. Partygoers can get in for a reduced admission price.
The exhibit will also feature a companion piece, one very much in the spirit of the I-95 project. More than 50 of Strauss's photographs, works not being shown in the museum, will be displayed on large billboards throughout the city.
And in what will be a first for the museum, Strauss will hold "office hours" throughout the run, and visitors can ask her about her work or anything they like.
"She has a principle of being accessible to the public and being transparent about her artistic process," said Barberie.
On March 4, she'll be speaking at the museum about the influence of the music of Bruce Springsteen on her work. Springsteen is known for writing lyrics about everyday life and about people who haven't realized the American dream as well as for experimenting in different musical genres.
"The way the installation worked, I like to think of it as song," she said.
"I like the idea of these images — they are photographs, static images — being able to move about in the world in a way that I felt that they could tell their own story like radio air play."
One image that touches on her own story is meant to depict her great-grandmother's kosher butcher shop in North Philadelphia that closed in the 1960s. She said that a photograph of a butcher shop she took in Lectoure, France, is intended to serve as a stand-in for a place in her family's past that no longer exists.
Strauss acknowledges a complicated relationship with her Jewish identity. She's an avowed atheist, she said, but she feels a connection that's hard to define.
"I'm so Jewish it's unbelievable. I don't have a genetic connection, both of my parents were adopted, and I am not observant," Strauss said.
She added that one thing she regretted was that her grandparents didn't live to see her first profile in the Exponent in 2007.
"I think I'm typical in a lot of ways," added Strauss. "Non-observant Jews, atheists, people who grew up in non-observant families and had a significant connection to Jewish or Yiddish culture, identify strongly as a part of that culture and as an integral part of self."