1. It's impossible for me to write coherently about I-95. But this is a book about I-95 and 10 full years of my life, so I'm going at it and doing my damnedest to write a brief synopsis.
2. You should look at the 2 photos below because they say much more than I ever could with my writing.
If you want, you can stop reading this essay now because those photos are enough.
3. I-95 was an epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life, comprised of 231 photographs adhered to the concrete support pillars under an elevated highway that runs through South Philadelphia, Interstate 95. The installation of photos went up once a year, from 1PM to 4PM, on the first Sunday in May. I worked on 95 for a decade, from 2000 to 2010.
The concept for 95 came to me pretty much fully formed and I spent a little more than a year making sure the concept was strong and the execution was going to be rock solid. With money I got from my wife and immediate family for my 30th birthday, I bought a camera within the month and began to make photos for the installation.
I had, and still have, very little interest in exploring how this idea came to me. I don't care about why. But I did care a great deal about bringing it to fruition and completely committed to doing so. In nailing I-95 down, I endlessly mulled over the format and laid out a blueprint for the installation.
For example, I knew from the start it had to be a 10 year long project.
Did it need to be 10 years?
A decade would allow me enough time to make a strong body of work. I needed to learn to make photographs and couldn't gage my capability until I actually started working. Setting a time constraint assured that the installation wouldn't be overworked. Plus, I could go at it as hard as possible without fear of burning out.
Oh friends, that's just the tip of the iceberg. There were many, many components that made up the basic structure of 95. I would never obtain a permit or ask to use the space under the highway, I would just use it. The process of making the photos and the editing of the photos would be as transparent as possible, allowing people to see each step of how the installation was constructed. All of the portraits I would make would be of strangers and come from an initial meeting where I asked to make a photo of them specifically for this installation. Each year would be a different edit of the epic narrative, and it would change each year with my entire body of photographs available to construct the yearly exhibition. I would create photos that would allow people to construct their own narrative when moving through the installation. I would be open to making any photos that would work within the installation, but portraiture, text heavy images, and architectural images would comprise the majority of photos; those 3 formats would work best to allow viewers to forge their own connections among the photos. The ordering of the photos would be both intuitive and intellectual and everything would be considered, there'd be no arbitrary placement of photos. Each photo included in the installation had to a strong individual photo and had to fit with the larger body of work, meaning that sometimes stronger images would be edited out for inclusion of images that helped move the narrative forward... oh, that one turned out to be much more difficult than I could have ever imagined.
In relation to making work over the course of decade I thought of 95 in terms of a "lifetime musical career," specifically Bruce Springsteen's career, with consideration being given to how songs, albums and live performances connected over the decade. I wanted to account the way the body of work would grow and change, with the once a year installation being akin to a set list for a live performance.
And I thought of each yearly installation in terms of poetic form. The villanelle is a good example of how I thought about 95. While a villanelle relies on repetition as a device and has a strict rhyme scheme, it allows for great freedom within the form. I was looking to use the personal and specific to get at the universal, and staying within a strict format allowed for a looseness and fluidity within the form that let me get at "everything." Plus, it was important to create a number of different ways to keep people moving around the installation, pinballing back and forth among the pillars and repetition of form and theme was really needed to keep that kind of movement going. Keeping everything fluid within a that form was a little more difficult than I had anticipated, but there's no question I couldn't have gotten it done without a framework that allowed me be wide open to all experiences when making photos. I wanted to allow for my conscious and unconscious to work as equals, so photos could be made with both the cerebral and intuitive present in all of the photos. And I didn't want the photos I made to be constrained by location, I wanted to make photos as I moved through my life no matter where I was. When I started the project I had no idea I'd be traveling extensively and bringing photos home to the installation, photos I'd made in places around the United States, and a few spots I'd been in Europe. And so while the images traversed place and time, the location and exhibition time of the installation was immutable, allowing the narrative to shift within the framework until the last very last 3 hours in 2010.
A billion things changed between 2000 to 2010 but the installation remained completely true to concept and construct from inception to end, with one exception. In 2005 I added an hour to the exhibition time and made it a three hour exhibition. I had originally scheduled it to from 1Pm to 3PM but decided that 2 hours wasn't long enough to everyone to traverse the space.
Although I-95 was a constant, like almost every other person in the world I had family members die and family members born during the course of my thirties. Family got married, friends died, new friendships happened. Life changing world events occurred. And I became middle aged, with an unexpectedly whole new set of life management needs arriving. During the run of I-95, I lost 3 teeth. Essentially, they just broke and fell out of my mouth. All of them are now replaced with expensive crowns. I think 3 teeth is a high count for the duration of one art project.
In my mid-thirties my wife and I decided that we were most likely not going to have children. I'd always been certain I wanted children but suddenly found myself full force going at this all encompassing, life-filling project and I decided I didn't want to stop, I would forgo being pregnant and possibly ever having children. I don't know if I'll regret that. It was a painful decision to make but I was moving forward like a full throttle freight train and I felt strongly I had to choose one or the other. I picked I-95.
Though the decade there was an almost complete confluence of my everyday life and my work on I-95, and that meant personal boundaries were constantly being modified and transgressed. Not just for me, but for everyone in my life. My commitment to transparency of process as an integral component of I-95 meant that the lives of my family and friends had to handle constantly changing and dissolving demarcations between "life" and "work." The invitation of strangers into my life through my work meant the invitation of strangers into the lives of my wife and family too. And on top of that, I devoted the great majority of my time to my work: constantly making photos, continuously editing on several levels, offering up stream of consciousness writing and digital contact sheets online for everyone to see. I went at it.
4. Oh, my darling. Now's the time to introduce my wife, Lynn Bloom. Without her, none of what you're about to check out in this book would have ever been produced.
When this essay is published, Lynn Bloom and I will have been together for 22 years. She's supported me emotionally and financially throughout the duration of I-95 and she has given up more than you can imagine for this project, with her desire for privacy at the top of the list. She's a private person and time and time again I put things out there that she would prefer I not share, but the transparency of each part 95 was of utmost importance to me and that meant letting people into her life, too.
And she has graciously and generously allowed that to happen.
I often go into strangers home within moments of meeting them to make photos, and while that matters for my work and for myself, it's not that great for my wife. A couple of years ago I called LB to let her know how excited I was to have just gone into to some man's apartment within 5 minutes of meeting him, and having make a series of nude photos of him. My lady was in the middle of a 12 hour work day at a trade show in the sweltering Las Vegas convention center and here I was calling her to let her know about my great day of going into a man's apartment to take nude photos of him. I can't remember her response to my call, but rest assured she said the right thing. Oh, her patience. Literally the patience of a saint. If I didn't have Lynn Bloom as my wife, I would have never been able to make that photo. Or any photos for that matter. Her support and love is the biggest component of how I was able to go at this project for 10 years.
In trying to get at "everything" it was imperative to edit tightly and so I laid out distinct themes that ran through the installation. Each north to south row of columns a had a number of photos that addressed a particular theme, although they weren't confined to it.
The first aisle had a number of images about formation of self and was heavy on personal imagery
The second aisle talked a lot about construction of self with an emphasis on the construction and fluidity of gender.
The third aisle was desire, with an emphasis on addiction
The fourth aisle was American identity
The fifth aisle addressed getting by
The sixth aisle addressed hope and pride and joy
From the start I thought that exploring these specific motifs would be able to get at how we live and how we create ourselves, particularly how we can circumvent unreasonable constraints. I wanted to explore the strength in how we figure out our lives, and the truth of how sometimes we can't work it out. And I wanted pride, resignation, exhaustion, beauty, ignorance, insight, desire, strength. I wanted everything. And I wanted everything existing concurrently. Sometimes on parallel planes, and sometimes within the same image, within the same moment.
Of course there were sub-themes and formal components that connected the images in the East to west aisles, too. Connections were spaced throughout the entire installation. Because there was so much physical space between the photos it was often difficult the see the direct relationship among the photos . But that's something I loved, just a little bit of memory to connect one image to the next, regardless of how people moved through the installation. The placement of some images connected to each other by facing each other across an aisle. Some connected images were installed more than a block apart.
The origial thematics that I used to shape the epic were there from alpha to omega, but as time went on tropes and forms cropped up that I only began to see when I was editing, and they became integral parts of the narrative. Literal images of reflection began significantly popping up around 2004. False construction of industry and constructed landscapes became more important. I found that I needed to use a "red carpet" metaphor. Having ether completely closed or completely open backgrounds in portraiture began to interest me a lot. Images with the night sky and entirely black backgrounds became prominent and crucial to the edit. And desire for redemption was theme I hadn't really explored or thought deeply about at the beginning of 95 but as I moved forward I found it helped connect hope, fear, disappointment and desire in a way I hadn't seen before. All these new things came in but the structure of the installation remained the same.
As I saw patterns evolving in my work, it was incredibly important for there to be images that echoed each other, so viewers think they've seen a similar image somewhere else. Those similar images could have been made years and years from each other or thousand and thousands of miles apart.
For the final installation in 2010, I placed a photo of the house where my grandmother grew up, 1607 W. Susquehanna Ave, right at the beginning of the first aisle. My great grandmother had owned and operated a kosher butcher shop in that house for years.
And I placed another photo of butcher shop at the end of the sixth aisle, about 2 blocks from the photo of my grandmothers house. I made this photo of in a butcher shop in small town in France and I wanted to start and end the installation with the same store, one intensely personal and one completely foreign, both connected to me and connected in the world.
While writing this essay I'm constantly using both past and present tense verbs. I feel like I'm still working it out, a year after it's done. Apparently I'm putting the brakes on real, real slow.
In Biloxi, Mississippi, I met a woman who had her wedding ring made into two spectacular gold capped lateral incisors. She and her husband had melted down their wedding rings and gotten gold teeth made out of them because her husband was a mechanic and couldn't wear his ring at work because it kept getting caught when he was working on engines, hence the gold tooth solution. I thought it was a really beautiful story. When thinking about the portrait that came out our exchange, the story mattered to me in considering where, or if, the image was to placed in the installation. But no one needed to that story for the image to be successful. Her gesture and expression were enough to help folks to construct their own reasons regarding to what was happening when the portrait was made. For me, the image is paramount when making a portrait and everything I want the viewer to see is contained within the frame. My exchange with the people who participated in making the portrait matters a great, great deal to me, but for I-95 all of the images were intended for the viewer creating their own narrative. I am open about how my work is made, but for 95 it there were only images and viewers were open to their own reading of the content of the photos.
"You are everything
and everything is you
You are everything
and everything is you
Oh, you are everything and everything is you"
Written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed
Sung by The Stylistics
When I began I-95, something I hadn't really given any thought to was about how my work might move into the "art world." Believe me, I am insanely ambitious and worked my ass off on making my work as strong as I possibly could and making photos that I hoped could be eventually be considered important in the canon of American photography, but it was all within the context of making I-95 a tour de force. I just never really thought about the possibility of my work moving into the academy or institutions. Well, except for fantasizing about having a show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Turns out that was the right fantasy for me.
And so when people from the art world began to take interest in my work, how great was it to get grants and accolades and critical acclaim during the course of I-95? Oh, that's rhetorical, because it was fucking AMAZING. I consider my audience to be everyone and was thrilled to be able to expand who would see the parts that comprised the annual installation. In 2002 I got a Leeway Grant, a local grant for Philadelphia women and trans artists. And then the Philadelphia Museum of Art bought a few of my photos, and then I got a Pew Fellowship and then I was in the Whitney Biennial and had a show at the Philadelphia ICA and two solo shows in New York at Bruce Silverstein gallery and then I got a United States Artists Fellowship and I published a book of my work, America, and month long trips to Alaska and Madrid. Are you kidding me? I have had to exist in a state of suspended belief to constantly move forward. You can't imagine how phenomenally grateful I am for all of the opportunities that have accompanied this critical success. Especially because all of these otherworldly opportunities came right back to I-95.
In 2009, a man who became a good friend of mine, Ignacio, set up an intensive project for me Madrid and I was in Spain for a month. I stayed in a studio in Lavapies, a multicultural and very old neighbor in the center of Madrid, and that's where I met Senora Jacinta, a woman who lived with what seemed to be a thousand pets in a tiny apartment. My Spanish is terrible, practically non existent, but we managed talk a little bit and I visited her house a number of times, sometimes by myself and sometimes with a friend who spoke Spanish and English. Senoria Jacinta told me that she kept a dead bird in her freezer because she couldn't bear to bury it yet. I heard that. We all deal with grief in different ways and here was a moment I totally understood. The photo I made of her showing me the bird came right back to South Philly. "Woman Holding Dead Bird" was number 146 in the 2010 I-95 installation. It was the first photo in the 5th aisle.
I worked as a babysitter until 2005, and I made the photo below while driving one of the kids who I babysat home from Hebrew School. There was a house we called the "train house" because of the large number of train related items on display in their yard and I often pulled over in their driveway with the kids. At Christmas they had this single star on display in their yard, a star that implied you were up looking up at the night sky and seeing a constellation in the shape we use to signify "stars." Alex took a few photos with my camera and I made this one with the flash. Thanks for stopping with me, Alex. I should probably share photo credit with Alex for this one. "Star" was toward the end of the 6th aisle in 2010 installation, it was number 214.
Facebook exchange between
Karen MsKaye McDonald
and Zoe Strauss
Karen MsKaye McDonald- What are you trying to write about lil girl?
Zoe Strauss- An essay for my exhibition catalog, and I think you've helped me a lot. A part of the essay is that my life and my work have very little separation... and I think it's because I just I always let everything in and keep everyone who's ever mattered as a part of myself.
Karen MsKaye McDonald- Wow... That is a phenomenal outlook on life. Here's the thing, it's so true to who you are, no one could deny you that truth. The only changes I've observed in you have been slightly physical but your personality has maintained as "Strictly Zoey". I've looked through your photos and I can see things as you saw them, even when we were 10 years old. Loving it so much!
Zoe Strauss- I'm putting that in the book. For real. xoxox
G-d damn, this was a big project. And there's no way I could have brought it to where it came without an extraordinary support system. Particularly the support my sister, Savannah, and my mother, Ilene, have given me. You can't imagine how much I've asked from them and how they've given it without reserve. My sister has manned the sales table at I-95 from the first to the last show. That's something to be really grateful for. Can you imagine having to spend the first weekend in May selling 5 dollar photos for your sister for 10 years? That's beyond generous.
(Paragraph to be inserted regard long term relationships, interns signed on for a lifetime, eg Manny, cross over discussion)
Under the highway at Front and Mifflin, overhead traffic hitting the transverse joints can make it loud in the space underneath, often making people have to shout to be heard. And there's a shaft of light that runs down the middle of the space right at 1PM during the beginning of May. It lasts for less than 20 minutes and was as beautiful and important to me as any another part of the installation. When the installation was up for those 3 hours, everything mattered to me. Weather mattered. History of the American interstate highway system mattered. Philadelphia history and my personal history mattered. The history of photography mattered. Critical thinking skills mattered. Vision theory mattered. Politics mattered. Poetic form mattered. And relationships matter.
There's no way to articulate the breadth of this project, and how it became such an all encompassing part of my life. I've asked a lot from family, my friends and from total strangers. And from all who have participated in my work and who have had an interest in my work. And I'm filled with love and gratitude for your participation, friends.
Hope I did good by you guys.
(Part 7 still waiting on a paragraph that I'm going to finish after dinner)