Writer Jessica Lanay spoke with LaToya Ruby Frazier on the occasion of her concurrent exhibitions at Silver Eye and the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh. The latter exhibition, On The Making of Steel Genesis: Sandra Gould Ford, both documents and is shared with artist Sandra Gould Ford. You can read the review of the Silver Eye exhibition, The Notion of Family, here. A transcript of the interview follows:
Jessica Lanay: When I look at the photographs at Silver Eye Gallery and the August Wilson Center I see a complicated narrative where the human, specifically the Black femme body, nature, and industry are always coupling to tell a story about innovation and perseverance. For instance, in Epilepsy Test the wires hanging from the body mirror the wires torn from the hospital; the exposed interior of the hospital mirrors the exposed back of the subject. Another example are the lives of women such as you, your mother, Sandra Gould Ford, and your grandmother outliving these industries, as nature can overtake a building. Can you say more about this relationship between industry, the Black femme (human) body, and nature? How do you see them speaking to one another in your photographs?
LaToya Ruby Frazier: One of the major themes in all my work is the body and landscape. I believe that the history of a place is written on the body of its inhabitants and their environment. Often in my photographs, whether it’s a landscape of a house or an aerial view of railroads or a steel mill, I see the landscape as a portrait, a portrait of the body. In Epilepsy Test, Landscape of the Body Series 2011, I visually and formally make a direct connection. These are two separate images mounted on archival museum board as a diptych that creates a single image for the viewer. On the left you see the wires from my mother’s head lash down her bare back connected to a medical device. On the right you see the entrails, the gut of the hospital building ripped open with electrical wiring, cables, concrete and debris spilling out. I’ll never forget documenting the UPMC Braddock hospital demolition and feeling how the ground shook and trembled like a convulsion or spasm similar to how my mother described her epilepsy-like seizures.
The irony about being four generations of Black women in an industrial landscape during a post-industrial economy in Braddock and Pittsburgh is the historic omission and carelessness towards the fact that women birthed the workforce, worked in the steel mills, took care of their men with job-related ailments, and were exposed to industrial toxicity, contracting illnesses like cancer and autoimmune disorders that would sometimes lead to miscarriages, surgical removal of breasts, ovaries, and untimely deaths. Teetering on the edge of this ecological disaster is the strength of womanhood that continues to birth life on earth.
JL: Intimacy is another story that I see in the two exhibits. Intimacy between the person and physical sites of nature and industrial production; intimacy between mother and daughter, grandmother and granddaughter. In the images of Grandma Ruby’s home after she moved out there are the dust lines where pictures used to be on the walls, the floor is covered with bows, receipts, hangars, a pack of Pall Malls which recalls the images of the J&L Steel Factory and how even though it is gone. There are still lines, engravings in the grass where it once stood. What is being said about the deep intimacies in these photographs? What is the process for rendering intimacy or capturing intimacy in your photography?
Grandma Ruby, Mom and Me, 2009, Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York/ Rome
LRF: When you inquire about intimacy I think you are by extension pointing out the bonds, camaraderie, and trust I have in the portraits produced with my grandmother, mother, and Sandra Gould Ford. Not only is there trust but also an identity of sameness. Although each of us individually have our own encounter with Pittsburgh in the 30s, 50s, 60s and 80s, I see us as one entity of time consistently confronting the injustices of our history. These are generational narratives of triumph and a will to survive regardless of circumstance, invisibility, and death. There is a direct self-awareness and knowledge of these matters in the portrait Grandma Ruby, Mom and Me, 2009 as my mother and I stand guard in front of Grandma Ruby’s body in her casket decorated by a few of her porcelain dolls and all the portraits we made together.
During the opening of the show On The Making of Steel Genesis: Sandra Gould Ford the large silver gelatin print Sandra Gould Ford looking Back at the view from her former Talbot Towers Apartment in Braddock 2017, registered to me as time travel. I am standing behind her looking at her, look through a portal of her memory in her past and realizing it’s actually a double portrait. Although we did not meet in person until 2017 Sandra and I did live together in the Talbot Towers—I was a newborn and she was a newly wed mother. We were there together. And we become kindred spirits both transforming ourselves, and our lives by extracting our creative energy from the brutality of industrial capitalism. Sandra Gould Ford is an extremely generous spirit that helped me understand that the laborious process of making steel can metaphorically explain the process of being and the formation in coming into one’s self. You see by actively making portraits together an intimacy, an alchemy (as Sandra would say), occurred between us allowing me to see into a time period when I do not exist through Sandra’s photographs, visions, and memories of Braddock, Pittsburgh and J&L Steel. This connection with Sandra created a sense of balance it provided wisdom in areas unseen and unknown.
JL: In your writing in The Notion of Family there is a segment about a foot bath that draws impurities from the body. The technician says, “...Could’ve picked up a lot of metal …[i]t’s atomized in the air—you don’t realize you’re breathing it …” This statement seems to run parallel to the commentary at the August Wilson Center with Sandra Gould Ford, but it isn’t just chemicals and elements atomized and living in the body, it is also traditions of racism, state neglect, and dispersed family. Can you talk about how these elements seem to be synonymous in your photography? What ties them together?
LRF: In my video Detox Braddock UPMC, 2011, in one of the final scenes the doctor is pointing out heavy metal pulled out from the pores of our feet due to the ion charge on the foot bath. My mother and I did the detox because we were skeptical if it was real. We were also looking to alternative medicine to combat the discrimination we constantly face in doctor’s offices and inaccurate medical records. When I saw the metal floating in my foot bath I observed the landscape of Braddock and the Edgar Thomson Steel Works. When I look at the portrait I made of Sandra Gould Ford photographing the electric meters next to the Edgar Thomson Works, her photograph of the steelworkers operating the coke ovens at Jones & Laughlin Steel and the death records of the workers names, I see chemicals and elements that can build empires, harm, or kill alongside chemistry that makes silver halide appear on film (gelatin silver print) and ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide visible on paper (cyanotype). Through these alternative processes of physically printing the exhibition together we made the life of a beautiful woman who saw the end of an empire encroaching on the livelihood of workers, that cared so deeply for their lives that she froze their essence and trace of existence in time. The process of caring for others enough to preserve their life as Sandra did with the documentation of J&L workers, or how the doctor bathed and rubbed dry my mother’s feet after the metals seeped out is what ties the work we are doing together. Industrial capitalists are not more valuable or more important than workers, than human life. Generations of the working-class will continue to evolve and outlive industrial capitalism.
Video still from Detox Braddock UPMC, 2011, Single-channel video (color, sound), 22:24 min. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York/ Rome
JL: A more direct question. As a Black girl I was always obsessed with taking Polaroids of my mother, and inevitably each one is of her running from me, a child with a Polaroid camera. I think that, perhaps, many Black femmes would say there is a guarded or secretive intimacy between them and other Black femmes in their family. How did you get your mother to participate and pose for and with you? How did you decide when a picture would be posed or extemporaneous when it came to women in your family?
LRF: My photographs are a hybrid of portraiture, human documents, and living tableaux. I realize when to make a photograph only after spending days, months, to years revisiting the same space and place seeing a frame or window. I wait for an action to occur in this familiar place or space and then I know to make the photograph. Often my mother would direct or determine when we would shoot. I believe that scrutinizing myself as the subject, relinquishing my power as the photographer, gave my mother the agency to make the portraits herself. If you look at the portraits between my mother and I it is often my mother who is holding the camera. The clue is usually reflected in the mirrors that sometimes appear in the work. These portraits often revolve around holidays or illness and surgeries. Photographers must learn to give of themselves to their subjects, be an equal not an authoritarian.
JL: In many of the images of the industrial sites, fences are a recurring image. The fences seem to create the perspective in the photographs. They also represent imaginary lines between sites of destruction and the places where people reside or live. The fences divide the image spatially, but also guide the eye. When you were looking at composition in your photographs were the fences just an accidental part of the image or did you consciously sense that the fences were representative of larger communal conditions and decide to photograph them? Were the fences, in a sense, inescapable?
LRF: Similar to August Wilson’s play Fences, like the protagonist Troy, you can build a fence to keep your loved ones in and safe or you can be that barrier who drives a wedge between yourself and loved ones. I think it is practical and logical to build a fence around your property, lot, and livelihood, but, when I’m flying making aerial views staring down at the demarcation of neighborhoods and communities in proximity to steel mills, coke plants, fracking, contaminated bodies of water, hazardous waste sites, chemical plants, and pipelines I realize how small our problems are in comparison to the prevailing magnitude of destruction to our environment and mother earth.
(Image at top: LaToya Ruby Frazier, Landscape of the Body (Epilepsy Test), 2011, Gelatin silver print, 24 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York/ Rome)