LaToya Ruby Frazier was born in Braddock, Pennsylvania, in 1982, right about the time things started to go to hell for the once-booming steel town nine miles outside Pittsburgh. The photographs in “LaToya Ruby Frazier: Witness” at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston document the town’s continued decline. Braddock is where Andrew Carnegie built his first major steel mill in 1873 as well as his first public library. The town was hard hit in the early 1980s, when steel manufacturing almost disappeared. The population fell from more than 20,000 to fewer than 2,500 today. The economic crisis led to the town being redlined — turned into a loan and investment dead zone. Then crack took its toll on the area.
Photos of abandoned buildings in economically devastated cities, like Braddock and recently bankrupted Detroit, fall into the genre of “ruin porn.” But Frazier’s show is an antidote to sensational images of urban decay that obscure the underlying depth of human tragedy. Frazier didn’t roll into town to create a glossy photo book; she’s recording — and mourning — her own hometown, and the show includes Frazier’s photos of herself and her family. Frazier shoots with film, and her gelatin silver prints have a 20th-century aesthetic; the black and white images, all shot in the 2000s, seem to record scenes decades older. When she shoots the demolition of the hospital her grandmother died in, it’s not about the spectacle of destruction; it’s about a very real and personal sense of loss. When she photographs a 19th-century brick row house caving in on itself, the sense of mourning is not dissimilar to that in her portrait of herself and her mother standing next to her grandmother’s open coffin.
In 2010, Wieden+Kennedy, a Portland, Oregon, ad agency, decided Braddock had the right urban pioneer cachet for their Levi’s jeans “Go Forth” ad campaign. The campaign featured patronizing print ads like the one that shows a young white guy in a Levi’s trucker jacket and white jeans wielding a shovel underneath the slogan “We are all workers.” While the “Go Forth” ad campaign contributed money to the community and supposedly used locals as models for the ads, the romanticizing of manufacturing and farming by the “creative class” is grating to people like Frazier who have witnessed agricultural and industrial economic collapse and the ruined lives of family and friends.
In response to the Levi’s campaign, which ran while the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center was closing the nonprofit Braddock Hospital because it was losing money, Frazier produced Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save Our Community Hospital) (2011), a series of 12 photolithograph and silk-screen prints on paper. In the work, Frazier juxtaposes an image of a community protest against the closing of the hospital (which bears Frazier’s handwritten text “Do we really need $50 jeans or $250 trucker jackets when we don’t have medical care?”) with a Levi’s image of two white twentysomethings embracing a horse. The text “Go Forth” is emblazoned across it. Underneath the image, Frazier wrote, “How can we go forth when our borough’s buses and ambulances have been cut?” Editorial comments written by the artist mimic the folksy handwritten “Braddock, PA” text inscribed on the ad images by the graphic designer.
Text under Frazier’s image of protesters in front of the rubble that was the hospital reveals that the same construction company hired to demolish Braddock Hospital was hired by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to build a new facility in a nearby wealthy suburb. Google “Braddock Hospital” and the following text comes up on the UPMC site: “A number of UPMC facilities, many of which are easily accessible to residents of Braddock, are available to you in meeting your health care needs.”
Perhaps the apogee of the Portland ad firm’s douche-y West Coast hipsterism is its Levi’s ad from Paper magazine sporting the headline “Opportunities in Braddock. Seeking New Pioneers. Opportunities Abound for People of Good Will and Strong Character.” The headline is a riff on 19th-century calls for settlers, but it seems to imply that current residents living in poverty lack “good will and strong character.” Before the word “Opportunities,” the artist inserted “misinformed & mismanaged.” The ad is laid out like an old classifieds page and touts various endeavors, from a ceramic water filter factory to a biodiesel system to “Joel and Kristen,” who make furniture from reclaimed wood. (Their Web site is defunct.) Again, Frazier’s handwritten insertions debunk the perky propaganda. She asserts that an advertised art studio space is “contaminated by asbestos and black mold.” Even the ultimate feel-good of the urban organic garden is given a dose of reality. The first two words in “Reclaimed urban land” are crossed out and replaced so that it reads “stolen toxic land.” “Tended by area kids” is crossed out to read “free child labor.”
Braddock has felt the environmental impact of 140 years of steel manufacturing. Smoke still belches from the U.S. Steel mill in spite of its vastly reduced production. The smoke itself becomes a character in Frazier’s videos. It slowly pours forth from stacks with a kind of baroque beauty. But Braddockites, like Houstonians, know that toxic emissions take a toll. Frazier’s grandma Ruby, a petite octogenarian shown in Frazier’s photos with a pack of Pall Malls and an extensive doll collection, experienced Braddock’s glory days as well as its decline. She died of pancreatic cancer. Frazier’s mother has cancer and an unknown neurological disorder. The artist herself has lupus.
In a video titled DETOX (Braddock U.P.M.C.), 2011, the artist interviews her mother about her neurological symptoms, and she and her mother undergo a “detoxifying foot bath” at Braddock Hospital — pre-demolition. Braddock is likely rife with environmental hazards, but the procedure is proven quackery. Running electrical current through salt water with metal in it produces all kinds of colored gunk from corrosion. Practitioners try to pass off the matter as toxins from the patient’s body.
In the video, mother and daughter sit side by side with their feet in saltwater baths with electrodes in the water. Stuff begins to accumulate in the water, and the doctor talks about how their systems are being cleansed and identifies the multicolored gunk as heavy metals and other undesirable matter. The video speaks to crappy medical care provided to residents by Braddock Hospital.
Frazier’s mother is the artist’s subject and collaborator in a number of works. There is honesty, equity, empathy and respect in these images. Frazier is not some outsider looking in; she’s an insider seeing herself in her mother as they stand side by side, embrace or sit in a bar decorated for Christmas. In the show’s catalogue, exhibition curator Dean Daderko recounts an anecdote from Frazier’s first university photography class. When the artist saw Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph of a migrant mother, she asked, “What is that lady’s name?”
In Witness, Frazier’s hometown isn’t some backdrop for an ad campaign, and her family isn’t a statistic.