In Defense Of Zoe And Her City

April 20, 2012 | by Bradley Maule


Photo: Bradley Maule

When I walked into Doobies Bar at 22nd & Lombard last Thursday, I was brimming with a Philly-feelgood I hadn’t felt since…well, at very least since I moved across the country to rainy Portland two and a half years ago. On this particular afternoon in Philadelphia, where I understand it’s always sunny, there was a perfect melding of conditions: springtime sunshine, Schuylkill breezes, blossoming trees, Dr Dog’s new record Be the Void on my headphones. Walking across Lemon Hill (from where the above photograph was taken) and then through the Azalea Garden in full bloom set the stage for what had become the impetus of my visit: Zoe Strauss’ Ten Years exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Seeing her famous “Mattress Flip” hanging between those familiar kasota stone columns of the PMA’s west entrance–knowing that the east side read “VAN GOGH”–was a booster shot of pride.

As a photographer, I’ve had nothing but respect for what she’s accomplished, from her ten years under I-95 to her gut wrenching depiction of the Gulf Coast as it dealt with BP’s oil disaster. For my own tastes, some of her photos are better than others; the two prints on my walls are of the crushed McDonald’s sign after Hurricane Katrina and of the woman smoking crack in front of a plywood wall in Camden. But certainly no accomplishment thus far can top breaking through the conspicuously stuffy institution and society Albert Barnes denounced; to be a living, breathing, Philadelphia artist with her own contemporary work on the walls of the PMA.

Photo: Bradley Maule

Walking through the gallery, the connections I made with certain photos–“Mom Were OK,” “Gunshot in Leg on Gurney”– were occasionally pierced by a security guard’s bellowing voice reverberating off of the gallery walls, demanding that no photography of any kind whatsoever will be permitted in this gallery, calling herself Officer So-and-So. (It could have been Smith or Jones, but “Officer” was the important part.) As I was wrapping up, in the central room with the rapid fire display–one wall had 26 photos assembled, A through Z–a group of dapper city high school kids walked in and made faces and expressions not unlike the one of the boy on the right of “Mattress Flip” while they viewed the photos. One of them, a girl who looked 17, said, so poignantly, “huh-uh, I can’t look at this. This too dangerous.”

Back at Doobies with my PMA badge still on my jacket, barkeep extraordinaire (and longtime PMA member) Rich Mulhearn struck up a conversation about Zoe and what her show represents to Philadelphia. A younger bar patron, maybe 23, was sitting by himself and chimed in that he heard she’s riding the backs of her subjects, exploiting them for her own fame. He even went so far as to say she’s “on record” as saying she doesn’t care about these people, that she takes her pictures quickly and gets out. Knowing how absurd this was, I asked him where he got his information, and he said something about his “model friends” who are also photographers who know her. I told him that I’d go “on record” that his “model friends” are full of shit, and instructed him to read Tara Murtha’s incredible cover story for Philadelphia Weekly on “Mattress Flip.” The soul that pours from Zoe Strauss’ photographs is the story they tell, and she takes great care to see to that. After all, her I-95 shows worked because they were free and open and for everyone. She’s One Of Us.

Zoe Strauss "I Love You" billboard | Photo: Rob Lybeck

These are the sorts of jealousies that inevitably arise when One Of Us makes it to the top, so I didn’t pay the kid any mind. But I did in hindsight find it appropriate to be perhaps unnecessarily defending Zoe Strauss and her work when she’s made a career out of unnecessarily defending Philadelphia. Sure, Ten Years features works from Las Vegas and Alaska and Biloxi, but it’s her Philadelphia photos that the people come to see. That’s South Philly hanging between those Greek columns on the west side of the PMA. That was ?uestlove spinning records at her opening party. That’s a South Philly woman’s work up on 54 billboards across the City of Philadelphia.

You owe it to yourself as a Philadelphian to see Ten Years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If you haven’t yet, you’ve got until Sunday afternoon. Get into it. [Zoe Strauss: Ten Years]


About the Author

Bradley Maule Bradley Maule is a former co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and the creator of Philly Skyline. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and he's hung his hat in Shippensburg, Germantown, G-Ho, Fishtown, Portland (Oregon), Brewerytown, and now Mt. Airy. He just can't get into Twitter, but he's way into Instagram @mauleofamerica.


  1. Matt Lenfest says:

    People are entitled to their opinions and there are a good deal of people that question if the museum is exploiting her like she exploited her subjects. You have to ask yourself can the photographs stand on their own or is it the story behind them and the photographer that makes it interesting. Some also question the timing of how fast the project went from completion to a full fledge retrospective that was paid for by a huge grant. To question something out of the ordinary is normal in the art world and if the artist and their followers can handle it maybe they need to do something else. My opinion is she has a few good photos but not enough for a major exhibition like this with all the hype attached to it. They brought her out too soon. Philadelphia has a large talent pool when it comes to photographers. Harvey Finkle, Sarah Stolfa, Michael Penn, Nadine Rover, Ted Adams, Eric Mencher, Stuart Rome just to name a few but it always seems that those with the power in the Philadelphia art world put their eggs in the same basket.

  2. Pablo O'Higgins says:

    Yes, Zoe Strauss goes bravely where her collectors fear to go. Strauss valorizes the people who burden us with their lives of ignorance, drug abuse and violence, and so often make Philadelphia a miserable place to live for everyone else.

  3. Michael Penn says:

    All I can say is everyone’s taste isn’t going to be the same. I’m sure there are more people who liked the exhibition than disliked it and as a fellow photographer that’s all you can hope for.

  4. Andrew G. says:

    I agree with Matt in that it is perfectly valid to discuss Zoe’s intentions — she is by no means off limits just because she is a Philadelphia artist. Sounds like who Brad ran into was a little out of his element, but there are many valid questions worth asking here. For example:

    1. One could argue that Strauss isn’t exploiting anyone when she puts her photos up for free and totally open to the public under I-95. However, once she brings them into the hallowed walls of PMA, where people have to pay $30 just to walk in the door, it’s a different story all together. Now she is, technically speaking, making money off the disenfranchised people she photographs, though I know that she is a great person and has no malicious intent. It’s still a question worth asking.

    2. Another question is can of all her subjects truly give their consent to be photographed? The majority of her subjects are of a perfectly able mind, however there are a few who aren’t. One could argue about if those folks under the influence of a substance are of clear and rational mind, but let’s put those aside. Did everyone see the “Alzheimer’s” photo at the exhibit that showed an elderly woman standing in the middle of the street with her coat open (showing her nude body) holding a cigarette and a small dog? Assuming Strauss wouldn’t use the above term lightly, her subject was clearly not of a clear mind.

    1. Michael McGettigan says:

      Erm, adult admission is $16, PMA is free on the first Sunday of every month.

      And if you are a real anarchist/truly broke, just snoop around the sidewalks on your way in till you spot a discarded badge with that day’s color. (NO, I don’t endorse this) Badge recycling of course brings up ethical questions, which we’ve already had a stack of.

      As far as consent, rational minds, etc. If you take that to the extreme, no one is really qualified to sign a contract, drive a bus or be President. We are all just trying to navigate through this world, working with imperfect information. You can hit people with a giant waiver form saying, “this might be in the PMA or on a billboard someday–” but you wind up with a lot of blank forms and not many images. When I walk into a 7/11 store I am being filmed, and if I get shot there in a botched hold up, Fox News will certainly profit off it. (don’t worry, I only have this thought a couple times a week!)

      Doing what Zoe does takes guts. Actually living the lives she photographs takes guts. One doesn’t diminish the other.

      — Michael McGettigan

  5. C H Paquette says:

    Gertrude Stein and her siblings were mocked and ridiculed early in the twentieth century for buying the art of Picasso, Matisse, and other avant garde painters when the establishment art world looked only to the past. Philadelphia is a notoriously conservative cultural town. It is virtually impossible to name a ground breaking art movement born in Philly. (Music excluded!) We are a town that follows artistic trends rather than developing them.

    Zoe Strauss has helped to change that perception, and in the process has ruffled quite a few feathers of the old (and somewhat stale) guard in Philadelphia photo circles. The fact remains that the press preview for Zoe Strauss: Ten Years was the highest attended media event in the history of the art museum, and the show has been attended by a truly diverse audience spanning all cultures and economic backgrounds.

    In the same year that the Barnes Collection will move to center city and into the accessible view of thousands of new visitors, Zoe Strauss has opened a new dialogue about the definitions and status of contemporary art in this city. Art lovers should welcome that discussion with open arms.

    1. Matt Lenfest says:

      To me that whole statement sounds like hype, doesn’t mention the actual work and once again leaves one to question what this exhibition was actually about. Some see this as a marketing stunt to try entice younger patrons and those less fortunate. They’re valid questions that no one should take offense to. I’m also curious who the “old and stale guard in Philadelphia photo circles” are. ?

    2. Matt Lenfest says:

      Also what does this mean ? “We are a town that follows artistic trends rather than developing them.” and then “Zoe Strauss has helped to change that perception” ? Did she invent documentary photography of people in need or down and out ?

    3. John says:

      Hahaha Zoe Strauss an original? Have you seen the work of Janette Beckman or Mel Rosenthal?

      Look at these then get back to me.

  6. Zoe Strauss says:

    Yes! This is awesome! Matt and Andrew these are great questions and absolutely agree there’s no reason to take offense to them… I’m thrilled they’re coming up and say keep them coming. Also, thanks for your kind words, Chris.

    I’m ending this exhibit with more questions than answers about the process and the structure of exhibit, which I think is great.

    Friends! Let’s go to town!

    Andrew, this is a great statement…

    “1. One could argue that Strauss isn’t exploiting anyone when she puts her photos up for free and totally open to the public under I-95. However, once she brings them into the hallowed walls of PMA, where people have to pay $30 just to walk in the door, it’s a different story all together. Now she is, technically speaking, making money off the disenfranchised people she photographs, though I know that she is a great person and has no malicious intent. It’s still a question worth asking.”

    You’re damn right that’s a question worth asking! And thanks for saying I’m a great person. I’m adding this question in, what does it mean when work created for a site-specific installation moves into a cultural institution? The images themselves are details of a site-specific installation that’s now complete. But the context of viewing the images is changed entirely in relation to the very real barrier of admission. Admission is actually 16 bucks, not 30, but I still think 16 is A LOT of money for most people. There’s many questions about barriers here that should be addressed. This is a question that’s not just about the museum, but the ethics involved in the sale of any street photographer’s work in which the image is primarily a portrait.

    2. Alzheimer’s is an excellent example of the complexity of exhibiting work in a space that was intended for another space. The title of that image comes from my own totally wrong impression that the woman in the photo had Alzheimer’s. As far as I know she didn’t have Alzheimer’s and was totally cognizant… her dog, Baby, had gotten out and she was looking for him. I assumed she was wandering and stopped with certainty that she needed help. But I was wrong about what she needed, because she just needed her dog back and the title comes from my own, incorrect, assumption.

    Of course, who thought that I’d be having this major show at the art museum when I titled that photo 10 years ago? So I had many questions about whether the title should have be changed because it skews the viewers perception of the photo. In truth, the image was made a great moment, when I came around the corner and she said, “I have Baby.” I went back and forth about the title and decided to keep it titled as it had been since I made it. The title could easily have been changed to “Woman With Dog” or “Woman in Robe” but I felt it made the most sense to keep it as I had titled it for myself, which was not a light or easy decision. It was one I made because I wanted the project to have consistency, and because I wanted to talk about the impossibility of having singular images tell any story without context. This brings up the question of the intrinsic power imbalance in street photography, the photographer’s ability to use the “real” likeness of a person as a metaphor.

    Anyway, I am all about questions regarding money, consent, obligation of the museum to participate in community, my own role within the institutional structure and about a billion other things.

    Matt, your last question is also completely relevant… my work constantly references the history of photography and visually “quotes” photos I think matter, either personally or historically. And I look to “quote” not only photographs, but painting as well. But portraits are a minority in the body of my work. Ok it’s after 11 and I’m falling asleep, that’s it for my typing for now.

    One thing is for sure… it’s fucking awesome to be having these conversations. Thanks!

  7. Kevin says:

    Around 2006, Zoe Strauss moved into a house two or three houses west from the one I was renting in South Philly. It was a typical “transitional” neighborhood close to I-95 and that flagship of gentrification that was the new IKEA. At the time I was teaching second grade across the river in Camden, NJ. I had already been following Zoe’s work and what I saw in her photographs where the street corners near my house and the desolate buildings and the resilient or faltering Camden city residents who I knew, whose children I worked with or who I drove past on my daily commute.
    My first reaction to Strauss’ work was that it was well composed and impactful but ultimately derivative/ exploitative poverty pornography. The work wasn’t as painfully autobiographic or insightful as Nan Goldin’s; neither did it seek to enlighten or uplift the community like the work of Pepón Osorio, another Philadelphia artist. Worst of all, to my mind, was that her primary focus was art and not the well being of people or the health of the community. If the students I was teaching grew up to be successful adults and rehabilitated Camden what would Strauss take pictures of? The old mattresses, wandering drug addicted womyn and empty ruined buildings would be gone.
    Since then my attitude has softened a bit. Learning that she’s been involved with Philadelphia high school students teaching photo workshops humanized her a bit and showed me that some part of her was concerned with helping improve rather than just document peoples’ life situations. Her work is alluring and easy to engage with – I’ve accepted it as a saccharine and existential celebration of what Strauss has called “the beauty and struggle of everyday life.” She has a tragic sensibility, there’s nothing more profound. The kid in “Matress Flip” who was murdered at 19 and the womyn in “Daddy Tattoo” who died at 23 didn’t benefit from Strauss taking their photo. But Strauss isn’t a social worker or community organizer, she’s a photographer. While Strauss may disagree with this, a photographer has an outsider/ removed subject position and if American foreign policy has taught us anything it is that outsiders have no business interfering with someone else’s life.

  8. Howard Hertz says:

    Zoe Strauss photos are a well presented record of the artist’s personal experience, and that is Fine! The images rock color, line, light, space and composition. The “Under I-95” experiences are an incomparable act to follow; populating the environment with billboards to compliment the PMA hang is a genius move. This retrospective brought Philly proud contemporary to the world stage.

    Dr. Albert Barnes stated that art was not something separate to be placed on a pedestal, but inseparable from daily experience. Get it?

    The Barnes Foundation relocation is an international embarrassment.

  9. Jack Klompus says:

    A pretentious little snot pontificating at Doobie’s? Well, I never!

  10. rory says:


    and this thread shows–it’s far better to pontificate on the internet where one’s size cannot be determined, but one’s level of snottery (we’ll claim that’s a word for now) can.

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