People love to shoot movies and ads in Braddock, Pennsylvania. From a certain angle, it is the perfect postapocalyptic backdrop. It's where the new Christian Bale movie Out of the Furnace was shot, as well as parts of The Road. It's the setting for the 2010 Levi's "Go Forth to Work" campaign, featuring real residents in black-and-white photographs with the tagline "Everybody's Work Is Equally Important." For burnishing Braddock's image and attracting new workers from "creative industries" to rehab old houses and buildings, the town's Harvard-educated mayor, John Fetterman, has become a pop star. Held as an exemplar in many art and media circles, he wears a tattoo of his adopted town's zip code on his arm. In Out of the Furnace, Christian Bale wears a tattoo in tribute to Fetterman's tattoo. Fetterman also gets a tattoo every time somebody is murdered in Braddock while he's mayor.
LaToya Ruby Frazier's family goes back three generations in Braddock, spanning the entire 20th century. As the population plummeted from 20,000 to 2,000 between 1920 and 2010 due to toxic corporate citizenship, political neglect, the crack epidemic, and white flight, her people were part of the 2,000 who stayed. She was born in 1982. It made perfect sense when, as a teenager, she began photographing her family as a stand-in for the story of her town, including herself, her mother, and her grandmother at the center of her work. Her first exhibited works, made in her stately grandmother's doll-crowded house, are modest, intimate, black-and-white additions to the American documentary tradition, with twists of feminism and performance that are sometimes playful and sometimes edgy. Her next series was a collaboration with her mother. The two women, wearing messy house clothes like they're home sick, stare at the camera. Their bodies are Braddock's body: The medical wires from yet another round of tests on her mother's body echo the wires slithering out of Braddock's excavator-bitten hospital seen halfway through demolition.
Frazier's grandmother, also named Ruby, died in 2009 in Braddock's six-story brick hospital, built in 1906. Controversially, the hospital was torn down in 2010, while its owner, the nonprofit University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build a branch in a more affluent suburb instead. The hospital had become Braddock's community center. It housed Braddock's only restaurant. It was the largest employer of town residents and their source of health care, and many who've lived for decades in Braddock are sick from the steel mill the town was built around—Andrew Carnegie's first plant of many—which still pumps away day and night next to the Monongahela River. Braddock is hazardous to the human body. Frazier has lupus; her mother has an as-yet-undiagnosed neurological disorder involving seizures. The Fraziers have Braddock in their bodies, not on surface tattoos.
After the hospital closed despite months of protests on the streets, Frazier took to the skies. She was inspired by words from W.E.B. Dubois, who wrote, "Was there ever a nation... civilized from the bottom upward? Never; it is, ever was and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters." Frazier got in a helicopter and shot her newest photographs. They're full-color aerial views of the large-scale changes to Braddock, printed and displayed large at Seattle Art Museum. The shift in her approach is striking. The helicopter pictures continue to contain the signals of Frazier's study of art history; in an interview at SAM, she named references from Vermeer—she loves the way he set women in rooms near the light of windows—to the Bauhaus's László Moholy-Nagy. All three use tight visuals in the service of broad ideas.
Only a few of Frazier's helicopter pictures are at SAM. There are many others, and all together, they form a time-stamped map. This map—she will continue to create it—is in competition with another map, the one drawn by developers and city planners in the new success story about revitalization. Frazier is especially motivated by the rankling fact that art and creativity are marshaled to drive the new Braddock, when from Frazier's perspective, the forces of money and power are conspiring against the neediest with greater ferocity than maybe at any other point in Braddock's history. At times, it must feel like her two great passions—her people and art—are in mortal combat. (Many artists are poor because they're artists, which means they're actually just middle-class, exercising options the way the middle-class does.)
Frazier is winner of the biannual Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship at SAM, which gives her $10,000 and the exhibition, titled Born by a River after lyrics in Sam Cooke's civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come." Mounted on the walls of the galleries, there are two small Surface tablets developed in conjunction with Microsoft Research and Brown University for visitors to watch videos of Frazier talking and see more of her work. One of the videos shows her response to the Levi's campaign, where outside a pop-up Levi's shop she scraped herself along the concrete sidewalk until her Levi's jeans tore open all the way down both legs. The tearing revealed a sight with significance—that her legs were completely covered in protective pads. She may have destroyed the denim, but she kept her body conspicuously safe, marking an important departure from the metaphorical martyring acts of artists like Chris Burden, who had himself shot in the arm, nailed to a car temporarily, et cetera. That self-inflicted pain is an aesthetic contrast to a healthy body. Frazier's body is perpetually in pain. Similarly, her building body of work, unlike the temporary art plunked around Braddock to make it a nicer-looking place, is fighting to preserve the distinction between symbols and actual things. It's a perfect show for us in "progressive" Seattle.