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LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “Art As Transformation: Using Photography for Social Change”

by Anna Holshouser-Belden

Staff Writer

LaToya Ruby Frazier's Momme, 2008

[originally published April 22, 2022]


On Tuesday, March 29th world-renowned photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier visited campus to discuss her life-long mission of continuing the legacy of 1930s social documentary work through her own style—one highly influenced by ‘60s and ‘70s conceptual photography. Frazier turns the personal into the political and the political into personal in her work, which spans from photography to video and installation pieces. Frazier was born to a low-income family in the majority-Black Rust Belt town of Braddock, PA, which in the past was home to the one of the first Carnegie steel factories, and is now the location of a pesticide company, an air freshener company, and several manufacturing plants. It’s a town that has been affected by environmental racism for generations, a steel town whose people have been declared obsolete by the general public along with the industry it harbored. She places an intentional spotlight on small working-class company towns like the one she’s from, highlighting the voices of working-class Black communities most affected by neoliberal capitalism's harmful policies. On the 29th, Frazier spoke to Oberlin students about how she has used her photography in particular to push certain social issues to the forefront in–and out of–the art world. LaToya describes her photography as a collaborative process with whomever she is photographing, with common topics in her work being industrialism, Rust Belt revitalization, environmental racism, access to healthcare and clean water, community involvement and workers’ solidarity, and family and collective history.

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s connection to Oberlin stems not only from her interest in the social dynamics of small, midwestern towns, but also from the presence of one of her early photographs in the collection of our very own Allen Memorial Art Museum. This work, called Grandma Ruby’s Refrigerator, was used as the inaugural work in the Shared Art Program, in which all enrolled first years discuss one work of art as part of their First Year Seminar class. Grandma Ruby’s Refrigerator was also on display in an exhibit in the Allen as a part of this program. Grandma Ruby’s Refrigerator is a gelatin silver print of the front of Frazier’s grandmother’s refrigerator, from an angle at about the height of a child. From the vantage point of the shot, the refrigerator is coated from top to bottom with family photos, school pictures of Frazier, childrens’ drawings and colorful magnets, along with professional prints of Frazier’s work. On the right of the refrigerator lies some of Grandma Ruby’s antique doll collection, sitting atop a cabinet and stuffed into drawers below, along with childrens’ toys and six packs of Pepsi. Two metal sculptures below are hung on the wall above the cabinet. On the left, there is a counter upon which two bottles of Crisco oil and a box of cereal lie. The top of the fridge is covered in boxes of cereal and various snacks. The linoleum floor is visible in the foreground, along with the edges of two rugs. Frazier describes her grandmother’s kitchen as the center of her home, with the refrigerator and the images hung from it as the center of the kitchen. In a way, this portrait of a refrigerator is a portrait of the artist’s own grandmother.

This event was organized in equal part by members of ABUSUA (Oberlin’s Black Student Union) and the Academic Programs department at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, according to second-year Lulu Chebaro. The process of getting Frazier to visit Oberlin was started by Chebaro’s fellow second-year Imani Joseph, who worked as a PAL and with the AMAM in the fall semester while the Shared Art Program was going on. Joseph, after discovering Frazier’s work, began doing research on the artist and urged both the museum and the college to bring her here to Oberlin for an ABUSUA event. Members of ABUSUA started an initiative for Frazier’s visit, and after Joseph left for a semester abroad Chebaro took over as a main organizer of the event. Chebaro was motivated to take part in planning the event by a childhood interest in photography that she felt she hadn’t wanted to grow further, .

Chebaro had a childhood interest in photography that she felt she hadn’t wanted to continue into adulthood due to the space historically taken up in the practice by cis white men. Chebaro decided that Frazier could give a talk to the public of Oberlin, in addition to a more private “meet and greet” dinner with members of ABUSUA, the Africana Studies department, and the Studio Art department. Chebaro got a chance to speak with Frazier privately as well, in which the two discussed the trials of being overlooked in the higher education system with its historic (and current) over-valuing of wealthy, white students. Chebaro describes their conversation as the highlight of the visit, and her favorite piece by Frazier is the book Flint is Family In Three Acts, which students in ABUSUA are currently trying to have the college’s library buy.

During her talk, Frazier let the audience in on her beginnings with photography at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She claims that she had never set out to become an artist, and attended Edinboro, just a few hours drive from her hometown, for graphic design and communications. Frazier credits a chance encounter in the basement of her school’s graphic design building as the start of her artistic journey, when she noticed an old woman hanging students’ photographic prints on a bulletin board and felt compelled to help her, as if by some kind of divine appointment (in Frazier’s words). This woman turned out to be the photographer Kathe Kowalski, who taught at Edinboro University for the last ten years of her life, and whom Frazier credits as the driving force that merged her onto a more artistic path. Frazier described Kowalski to attendees at Dye Lecture Hall as a strict, no-nonsense woman whose classroom policies often deterred her fellow students from taking classes with the professor. Kowalski, however, having created work on the subjects of rural poverty in Pennsylvania, young women, the aging human body, and life in Pennsylvania’s prisons, recognized great value in the portraits of Frazier’s mother and grandmother that the young artist produced outside of class. Frazier describes having “hidden” these intimate portraits of her family, not having deemed them as sufficient artistic material for a classroom of majority wealthy, white students who she thought would not care about life in a low-income Black steel town. She attributes Kowalski as having urged her to bring photos depicting her life at home in Braddock to the forefront, a piece of advice that influenced Frazier’s entire body of work, beginning with her first book of photos–The Notion of Family–published in 2014.

During her talk at Oberlin, Frazier chose three examples from her large body of published work that she felt best highlighted her career and development as an artist and human being. She began with her first book, The Notion of Family, which expands on her work during her college years with portraits of herself, her mother, and her grandparents in their Braddock home. She also includes still lives of household objects like her grandmother’s dresser, mantlepiece, or refrigerator; and portraits of urban decay in Braddock’s fading downtown, with most photos in the series shot in black and white film. There is an emphasis on lineage here, drawn both from people and place, with Frazier naming buildings and signage an integral part of the community of her youth along with the people that raised her. In the book, this connection of physical place to a community lifeline is particularly emphasized by a side-by-side comparison of her mother’s back, visible through an opened hospital gown and strewn with wires from an epilepsy test, and the torn-down facade of her town’s hospital, electrical wires, cement, and steel hanging down from what were once windows. Frazier describes the loss of a local hospital as devastating to the community, as it was not only a healthcare resource for the majority-elderly citizens of Braddock, but doubled as a community center. This comparison of her mother’s aging body to the dilapidated hospital building shows Frazier grappling with a dying community. Along with this, her inclusion of protesters arguing for the hospital to remain open alongside portraits of her mother and grandparents in their home expresses the “notion of family” as something that crosses the threshold of the domestic sphere into the public community.

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s exhibitions have traveled far beyond her hometown to Belgium, Luxembourg, Paris, and Bordeaux; though even with the notoriety that came from creating The Notion of Family, Frazier continues to stick close to home with her work, moving from one small Rust Belt town to the next in order to depict human life in the midst of economic and environmental crises. Frazier also highlighted her photo series and book The Last Cruze during her talk, published in 2020. This book follows the auto workers of the Lordstown, Ohio General Motors Plant, just over an hour from Oberlin. The plant was shut down after over fifty years of supplying steady jobs to those in the village of Lordstown, and auto workers were forced to relocate to a tech plant in California with no increase in salary or housing provided. The workers from the plant along with the UAW Local 1112 Union worked to negotiate an agreement with General Motors, which LaToya documented on her camera, along with the fracturing of families and communities caused by the plant’s shut-down. During her talk, she emphasized a photo she took from a helicopter of a ring of Lordstown workers protesting, holding up signs and the American flag, stating that when asked what kind of photo they wanted taken, this ring of solidarity was their response. Frazier submitted her photo series, along with personal statements from the workers photographed, to the New York Times Magazine, who did not publish it because of the so-called “unprofessional” quality of the personal statements. In response to this denial, Frazier put on an exhibition of this work at The Renaissance Society, and installed a mock-assembly line in the gallery to hang her works on in order to literally put viewers in the shoes of those photographed. Along with this, auto workers from Lordstown were invited to speak at the exhibition, something out of the ordinary in most prestigious museums.

Frazier’s most poignant and personal work by far is found in her latest book, Flint is Family in Three Acts, which she worked on from 2016 up until 2022, traveling to Flint, Michigan documenting the clean water crisis. Frazier lived with activist and friend Shea Cobb, her daughter Zion, and her mother while in Flint, and became ingrained in their family dynamics, documenting their daily life alongside the citywide water crisis. Frazier followed Cobb as she went to work as a school bus driver and hairstylist, and met the Cobbs’ family and community members. The first “act” of Flint is Family includes this material, along with President Obama’s visit to Flint and the 2016 election. The second act follows Shea and Zion Cobb, along with other members of The Sister Tour, a Flint collective of artists and creatives, as some are forced to migrate away from the water crisis while others continue to be affected by it. Shea and Zion relocated to Newton, Mississippi, where they saw family and learned about their roots, but then were forced back to Flint after segregation in the school district left Zion with a less promising academic future. The third act follows Shea and Zion’s community as they install a clean-water generator in a neighbor’s backyard and watch their neighbors and Zion’s peers take their first sips of clean water in years, or in their entire lives. Some particularly striking photos from the series that Frazier highlighted during the talk show are two photos of Zion: one with Shea pouring water from a plastic bottle into her daughter’s mouth to brush her teeth with. Zion’s mouth is open and her eyes look joyful as if this is a normal nighttime ritual for mother and daughter. The second photo shows Zion doing homework in her mother’s bedroom, her mother looking up at her from the corner of the frame, while a jug and plastic bottle of store-bought water sit on the bedside table behind Zion like an eerie still-life.

In a New York Times review of Flint is Family In Three Acts, Frazier’s photo series is described as “a marriage of art and activism.” The funny thing about Frazier, however, is her insistence that she is not an activist. In her talk at Oberlin, she repeatedly emphasized herself as being an artist before she is an activist, stating that her work with the camera speaks in ways that she wouldn’t with words, and reaches those that she couldn’t. She describes the process of taking a portrait as inherently collaborative with the sitter, and that in telling these peoples’ stories, it is not her but them who speak through the glossy prints on gallery walls to the public. Frazier and her camera are not always welcomed with open arms, with many in Flint and Lordstown viewing her as a big-city intellectual intruding on their social circles and communities. Frazier sees what others may call “activism” as art serving its purpose, her using her “gifts from God,” as she said during her talk, in order to help others look at the world in a different way. Frazier ended her talk with a monologue on the purpose of art, education, and arts education, affirming that students should do what they love, and that all else will follow. LaToya Ruby Frazier’s talk on March 29th was an inspiration for Oberlin students to find both art and change within themselves.

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