The documentary tradition of photography dates back to the origin of the medium. Photographers as far back as Lewis Hine and Jacob August Riis have used this tradition to participate in conversations about the pressing issues of their time. And today, even as the role of photographer continues to evolve and democratize itself, there are still a number of artists working in this tradition who continue to push the boundaries of the genre. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and the continued degeneration of the American middle class, Gillian Laub and LaToya Ruby Frazier are both making work that speak volumes about what it’s like to be an American today.
Gillian Laub’s “Southern Rites” presents viewers with a hyperreality that invokes the kind of righteous indignation that can only be rivaled by an early 90s Spike Lee Joint. The images from “Southern Rites” illustrate Laub’s documentation of an area in rural Georgia that, at the time, still held racially segregated proms for its high school students. Laub’s vision is grand; in addition to the exhibition at Benrubi Gallery in Chelsea (closing June 27th), Laub filmed a documentary that aired on HBO, and she created a photobook under the same name.
Laub made her first trip to Montgomery County High School in 2002 after one student, Anna Rich, wrote to Spin magazine asking for someone to document the implausible, archaic practice of her school that refused to allow her to attend prom with her boyfriend solely because he was black. The photographs Laub produced over the twelve years she worked on this project have a static illustrative quality. While the scope of “Southern Rites” is impressive, can the images, which are often beautiful, adequately convey the rich convoluted history of not just rural Georgia but America? In many interviews Laub acknowledges that this is a complicated story, and it’s not simply good and bad or black and white. Is there a limit to what anyone, especially photographers, can communicate with our buzzfeed-headline attention spans?
Laub began this project as an outsider, and she worked hard over a twelve-year period to dig deep and document this small town, their traditions and their demons. The images she produced are compelling, and they show her dedication and commitment to documentary work. But even with the time she spent working on this project, is it possible to tell the whole story from the outside? On the other hand, Latoya Ruby Frazier’s version of documentary photography is fundamentally different. Her work is not an objective arms-length document of fact. Frazier’s series, The Notion of Family (on view at Aperture Gallery till July 9th) is a densely layered project that explores themes of mortality, justice, and voyeurism through images of Braddock, PA and three generations of the Frazier family.
Braddock, PA was a steel town. And then it wasn’t. This is an all-too-common story for industrial towns across America that have been affected by outsourced labor and the reorganization of the global industrial workforce. These towns that popped up across America and built the American middle class are turning into ghost towns. For Frazier, the death of this town became the perfect framework for her multilayered body of work. Throughout the project Frazier redefines and blurs the lines of documentation by participating, performing, and directing many of the images that she presents as a part of this series. Frazier documents Braddock and her family as a participant. She is a present, active character in the narrative about the town where she grew up, and she gives viewers an intimate study of mortality as she documents the illnesses that plague her family.
The video, DETOX (Braddock U.P.M.C.), which is included in the show at Aperture Gallery, is an incredible piece that contextualizes Frazier’s practice. The video begins with an unconventional interview of her mother. The camera lingers past what is comfortable, and slowly paints a picture, allowing us to see her mother revealed through time. As Frazier’s mother signals cut and asks why she’s still recording, the camera remains. The camera is stoic. And in Frazier’s work, the camera is a character in the narrative (note the inclusion of the shutter release cable in some of her photographs). In DETOX, Frazier and her mother both undergo a detoxification treatment to remove toxins from their bodies. In the video, Frazier juxtaposes images of Braddock’s industrial landscape, her mother’s stark, confessional interviews, and footage of their detox treatment. Her mother talks about her deteriorating health, politics, and race, and we see the world they live in.
Laub and Frazier have both created immensely compelling bodies of work about the underbelly of America. While the two photographers have chosen drastically different methods for engaging with documentary work, the end is the same; there’s a story to tell, and someone should tell it.