Zoe Strauss was a babysitter and a housekeeper. By her own admission, she was lousy at the latter. Fortunately, on her 30th birthday, she received a camera. Two rolls in, Strauss knew she was a photographer.
Six years later, Strauss was one of 101 artists selected for the 2006 Whitney Biennial, and the only one from this region. Her portraits and urban landscapes depict "the beauty and struggle of daily life," as she puts it, especially in Philadelphia. The images are vivid, direct, stunning and invariably true.
Since then, life has been good for the South Philadelphia artist. Actually, life has been beyond wonderful.
"Isn't it insanely ridiculous?" asks Strauss, exuberant even at rest.
Art under I-95
Strauss is self-taught, the first person in her family to graduate from high school. Her work has been compared to that of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, and collected by museums. But her most meaningful show will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. tomorrow under the I-95 overpass at Front and Mifflin, as it has been for the last eight years, 231 new and favorite images affixed to the concrete pillars.
Copies of the photos, as always, are $5 each, one per customer.
This is the penultimate I-95 exhibit. "Ten years, then I think I'll be done," says Strauss, who views the space and the general public's inclusion as integral to the event, the impersonal industrial space juxtaposed with the intimacy of the artist's labor.
Strauss, 39, is one of these irrepressible characters who appears to have been sprinkled with fairy dust. All the good stuff stuck. She doesn't so much walk as bounce.
Her attire trends toward sneakers, jeans and an exhaustive collection of Phillies championship apparel. Asked to give a talk at the Whitney a few years ago, she thought to ask - oh, why not? - designer Isaac Mizrahi, despite the slight obstacle that they were strangers. She landed on the designer's TV show, and was treated to a full makeover.
Strauss won a United States Artist Fellowship, "$50,000 to do whatever I want," plus a monthlong trip to Alaska. "I wanted full-blown Alaska," she says, and went in January, every day an adventure. "I saw a bald eagle eating a french fry. What more did I need?"
Strauss was invited to exhibit her work in southwestern France last summer. "They put a photo in the butcher shop window," she says, thinking of no higher accolade. Now, she's been asked to show in Madrid. "I know, insanely wonderful."
She was invited to Art Basel Miami with all the social swells, and sported her best Phillies gear. She attended a Los Angeles event with former Museum of Art board president president emerita Agnes Gund and Leonard Nimoy. "How great was that? And I had just bought the third season of Star Trek."
Strauss lives in South Philadelphia with Lynn Bloom, her partner of 20 years whom she calls "my lady." She's had two shows in two years at a tony New York gallery. Designer Todd Oldham - "I'm very big with Target designers" - signed her to do her first monograph, America, an homage to Frank's seminal The Americans. Artforum named it one of the 10 best books of last year.
And the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has purchased several prints, may mount an exhibit. "I would love to do a show. I hope to do a show," says photography curator Peter Barberie, who calls Strauss' work "searing, tough and very loving photographs of often troubled places and people."
This, it's important to remember, all happened in the past three years.
Not long ago, Zoe Strauss made $5,000 a year. She was on government assistance. She cleaned houses, badly.
But Strauss had a superb eye, a clear artistic vision. It just took some time and a camera.