‘I come from a forgotten community’

Photographer and activist LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Monuments of Solidarity is monumental in every sense of the word. Covering more than twenty years of the artist’s output, this retrospective offers Frazier an opportunity to not only showcase a body of work to which she has devoted her creative life, but also to showcase it in a way she never imagined she could.

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Consisting of a series of installation pieces that Frazier has declared “workers’ monuments,” this exhibition has given the photographer a rare opportunity to show her work on her terms—that is, to show her photographs not just as pictures on the wall, but also to contextualize them through installation work that gives a sense of the entire networks of relationships and activism she built while making the photographs. According to Frazier, it was an unexpected joy that an institution like New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) granted her the authority to create this exhibition on her terms. “This has been the most organic, harmonious working relationship,” she said. “They let the work lead, which is a big thing.”

For the exhibition, Frazier collaborated with longtime MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci, who was first introduced to the photographer’s work during a panel in which Frazier showed a slide of a workers’ monument she created commemorating the United Auto Workers. From there, the collaboration evolved into a complete overview, which was an unexpected surprise for the artist. “When they asked if I would be interested in doing an actual museum study, I was amazed because I’m only 42,” Frazier said. It was the kind of opportunity artists dream about. “Each of my bodies of work has been re-adapted to be a workers’ monument,” she said. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Frazier has, in fact, received very widespread, substantial acclaim. In 2015, at the age of 33, she received a MacArthur Genius grant – following up on a Guggenheim the year before – she has received numerous awards for her photography, and Time Magazine recently named her one of the most influential people of 2024. Frazier arranges her output from numerous “working groups,” the first of which was her Notion of Family, started in 2001 and formally completed 13 years later. In it, the artist forges a collaboration with her mother and grandmother, and from this core she expands her scope to capture the post-industrial decline of her birthplace, Braddock, Pennsylvania, site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill.

Frazier’s roots as a working-class daughter and granddaughter of women who have lived their lives in Braddock are very much a guiding force in her production. She is very outspoken about the fact that she takes pictures of ordinary Americans for ordinary Americans, and she chafes at the suggestion that she is being pigeonholed as a black artist. Following The Notion of Family, subsequent bodies of work document the struggle to save Braddock’s community hospital, the water crisis in the post-industrial city of Flint, Michigan, a collaboration on Pittsburgh’s steel industry with artist Sandra Gould Ford, a former employee of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company, and a chronicle of the last days of the General Motors automobile plant in Lordstown, Ohio. “All the things I’m describing are all things I’ve experienced,” she told me. “I come from a community that has been forgotten. As a little girl coming of age, and watching the impact of Reaganomics in my community, it was very real and deeply rooted for me.”

As a photographer, Frazier seems almost compelled to blur the boundaries between herself and her subjects, becoming deeply involved with their lives and struggles, and those of the broader communities they represent. For example, Frazier became deeply involved in the struggles her subjects were waging when she traveled to Flint and eventually connected with poet and activist Shea S Cobb and her family. The project started as a five-month assignment for Elle magazine, but once she arrived on the scene, Frazier came to believe that much more time was needed to tell the story. “By the time the photo series was released, things had changed and it didn’t feel right,” she told me. “It felt necessary to go further than that. Then I realized why it is so necessary to have artists who want to tell the story for a period of years.”

Frazier ultimately documented not only Cobb’s life in Flint, but also Cobb’s “reverse migration” back to Mississippi with her daughter Zion, as well as Frazier and Cobb’s efforts to bring an atmospheric water generator back to Flint, which was still suffering under the water crisis. years later. Cobb eventually used her own photos as a means to raise money for the generator. “This is the kind of thing that lights a fire under me,” she said, “to see these Black women being so resilient in the face of spatial and structural racism. It’s what kept me involved and wanted to continue carrying it with them.

Monuments of Solidarity advocates this maximalist approach to photography, where the photographer is never just a documenter, but an active agent in the story being explored. “What I actually do is organize the process of taking photos,” she said. “I help viewers see like, ‘Oh, I can take pictures and tell stories and organize in my local community on the ground.’ I don’t think people understand the fullness and potential of photographers, and how to use the power of photographs to make real institutional change.”

Frazier’s show concludes with a monument to labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, a figure Frazier links to Dorothea Lange, an artist who towers over her work. Frazier juxtaposes Huerta with Lange’s iconic portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, a working-class woman whom Frazier sees abused, forgotten, and robbed. “I’m creating a corrective to that history,” she said. “Giving the tribute and respect back to Dorothea Lange, back to Florence Owens Thompson, because of what Dolores Huerta stands for. It’s a beautiful, moving way to bring back a correction, a reframing of this history and an undermining of this power dynamic. And that’s what I really want Americans to learn.”

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