MacArthur fellow LaToya Ruby Frazier captures the town that survived

January 5, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Braddock, Pennsylvania, was once a thriving steel town before the town’s industry collapsed. It's where LaToya Ruby Frazier grew up, like her mother and grandmother before her, and it's where the visual artist and 2015 MacArthur fellow has returned to document the change her community has endured. Jeffrey Brown talks with Frazier about her art and activism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, a look at a photographer’s more-than-decade-long project documenting hope and despair in her hometown.

Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Braddock, Pennsylvania, about nine miles outside of Pittsburgh, a once thriving steel town of some 20,000, now down to one-tenth of that, and captured through the very personal lens of LaToya Ruby Frazier, the 32-year-old winner of one of this year’s MacArthur fellowships.

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER, Photographer: I see myself as an artist and a citizen that’s documenting and telling the story and building the archive of working-class families facing all this change that’s happening, because it has to be documented.

JEFFREY BROWN: These days, Frazier teaches and lives in Chicago, where we talked to her, but her true home, her childhood home, is the one found in her work.

It’s a project titled “The Notion of Family” that she began more than a decade ago, documenting three generations of African-American women in a particular time and place.

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: My grandmother, who grew up there in the ’30s, when Braddock was prosperous and a city itself that everyone came to, to my mother growing up there in the ’60s during segregation and white flight and the beginning of the collapse of the steel industry, to myself growing up there in the ’80s and ’90s, when the factories were already dismantled and the war on drugs kind of hit its peak.

JEFFREY BROWN: Educator and photographer Lewis Hine used his camera for social reform. Photographers from the Farm Security Administration documented the poverty of the Depression, the pioneering work of Gordon Parks in the 1940s and ’50s.

Frazier sees herself working in this tradition, first and foremost, though, as a visual artist.

The art comes in with how it’s crafted, how it’s made, the material, me understanding the history, because the images, they’re not purely documents.

If you look at them, first and foremost, the fact that I appear on the other side of the camera lets you know that this is contemporary art, because now I’m performing and doing gestures in front of the camera to create…

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re part of the scene.

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: … the narrative and the scene, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But are they posed photographs?

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: They sit in between staged and documentation.

If we think about the image “Grandma Ruby and Me, 2005,” I know her routine. I know she will get up, she will have her Folgers cup of coffee, she will smoke her Pall Mall cigarettes, she will clean her dolls.

So, looking at my grandmother one day, I said, well, grandma, could you redo my hair the way you used to when I was a child?

So, I’m in my 20s in this image. So, I come and I sit next to her while she’s rearranging her dolls. And then we both quietly happen to look over our shoulders, and the cable release is running behind to the camera, and I press the cable release.

And so that’s how it sits between documentation and actual staged portraiture.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2013, Frazier flew in a helicopter above Braddock to expand her view of the town.

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: I just knew I had to shoot this, so the family could see what was happening to their property.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to capture the plight of one particular home owned by the Bunn family in the neighborhood known as The Bottom, right near the old plant. It’s now surrounded by bundles of crushed rubber tires.

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: And what’s interesting is, at one point, anyone who immigrated or migrated to work in this factory lived exactly these two blocks.


LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: And this is really important to me because it’s not about being black or white. This was our rites of passage, so it didn’t matter if you came from Germany, Croatia, Italy, Africa, North Carolina, or South Carolina. We all lived here together.

And over the years, these were all, through eminent domain, taken because people died from terminal illnesses, couldn’t upstand or keep their homes. And then this family, the Bunn family, decided that they didn’t want to move.

JEFFREY BROWN: In more recent years, a new story of Braddock has been told, one of grit and revival. Levi’s even used the city in a 2010 ad campaign called “Ready for Work.”

CHILD: Maybe the world breaks on purpose, so we can have work to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Frazier isn’t buying it.

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: Out of concern for this narrative and what I saw as propaganda, I started to make the portraits to counterbalance this narrative. Right. It’s not an empty land. It’s not a frontier. Like, people actually live here and have been dealing with the environmental crisis for decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: She points to government policies and corporate decisions like the closing of the main hospital, which had served many in the town, including Frazier’s own family, who say they suffer from environment-related illnesses.

The fight over the hospital was captured in a 2012 documentary by Tony Buba, who’s been filming life in Braddock since the 1970s. The protests became another point of Frazier’s own mix of art and activism.

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: So, here, I’m talking about the history of protests.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taken altogether, it’s a complicated picture. Frazier wants us not to forget those who continue to struggle amid the changes.

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: I’m not saying that it’s a dying town. I’m saying that we survived. Like, look at all of the damage, all the abuse we have endured, and we’re still steadfast and existing. So, for me, it’s a triumphant story. It’s really a testimony. It’s not — we’re not dying.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even though it looks — I mean, much of it looks so depressed and depressing-type scenes.

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: But look at me in the flesh right now in front of you.


LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: I’m not that girl.

JEFFREY BROWN: And she plans to use the money from the MacArthur grant, $625,000 over five years, to continue to document and complicate our picture of Braddock, Pennsylvania.

I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.