LaToya Ruby Frazier, American Witness


Frazier’s earliest memories are of the mill. The flames from the flare stacks would burn blue at night, and thick soot that could turn a white shirt gray by lunchtime billowed in the air, staining cars, streets and windows. “If you’re growing up in Braddock, Pa., in 1982, you’re looking at some serious devastation,” she said. The union-busting, erosion of social welfare programs and outsourcing of jobs plunged countless Americans — especially women, people of color and blue-collar workers — into poverty. Frazier grew up watching the crack epidemic infiltrate the community and, with it, the rise of war on drugs policies effectively designed to criminalize the poor. Her mother, Cynthia, abused crack cocaine at the time. From the age of 5, Frazier lived with her maternal grandmother and step-great-grandfather, whom she called Gramps.

Grandma Ruby, the artist’s eponym, was a redoubtable guardian who kept her granddaughter safe by keeping her busy. Frazier played the guitar by 6 and viola by 9; participated in after-school science fairs, mock trials and debates; and competed on the basketball team. Frazier took her first photography class as a student at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, where she enrolled in 1999, and where she found a mentor in the artist Kathe Kowalski, who introduced her to the portraits of the rural poor that the Farm Security Administration photographers had taken during the Great Depression. Studying the work of Dorothea Lange, Frazier was both inspired and frustrated. Lange, who had traveled the Dust Bowl as a government employee, building a record of human suffering and resilience to rally support for New Deal aid programs, had taken copious notes about the gaunt, dispossessed farmhands she photographed, but these were often not published with Lange’s images. As a result, her subjects were reduced to types, their identities erased. Florence Owens Thompson, the woman in “Migrant Mother,” Lange’s 1936 masterpiece, was not named for more than 40 years and was never compensated for her participation in what became the most iconic image of the Great Depression. How, Frazier wondered, could she change the skewed power dynamics that had long defined documentary photography?

She decided she would tell her own story, tracing the ways in which industrial decline, poverty and the war on drugs had shaped and changed her family. Over the course of the next decade and a half, Frazier would reveal — in 108 searing portraits, tender still lifes and stark, unsentimental landscapes — the human cost of abstract economic policies in a series she later titled “The Notion of Family” (2001-14). Shooting in black and white and relying mostly on available light, Frazier nodded to her idols Gordon Parks and Lewis Hine, photographers who used their cameras to demand social justice, but managed “to reinvent the tradition and history of documentary photography and make it her own,” said the artist Gregory Crewdson, the director of graduate studies in photography at the Yale School of Art, where Frazier has served as a guest critic. “Historically the tradition of documentary photography has been of the photographer going into a location and documenting it as an objective observer from the outside looking in, but her pictures show a much more complicated blur between her and her subjects that perhaps shows more complexity, more depth, more intimacy, more of a personal investment.”


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