Philadelphia photographer sets up studio in Homestead to tell a story of daily life

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The modest storefront on East Eighth Avenue in Homestead is a photography studio, but it looks more like a community center or somebody's living room. Portraits hang on the walls along with recipes a neighbor brought over. On a rainy Saturday, people drift in through an open door to pick up photos, say hi or settle in for long conversations, sometimes with babies and dogs in tow.

Zoe Strauss, the Philadelphia photographer who set up the shop for "Homesteading," greets many visitors by first name as if she has known them all her life. Since she opened the studio on Labor Day, she's become a part of the community.

Ms. Strauss is here to take portraits of people who live or work in Homestead. Each person who sits for a portrait will get a copy. Between 200 and 300 of these 5-by-7-inch color images will be exhibited as part of this year's Carnegie International, which opens Saturday.

Ms. Strauss' work has appeared in numerous solo and group shows in the U.S. and internationally, and her work is part of the collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Over a 10-year period starting in 2001, she created "Under I-95" -- a collection of images that she hung on concrete pillars under Interstate 95 in South Philadelphia. She describes her work as "an epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life."

That aesthetic is evident in the work she's creating for the International. She turns her humanist lens on the people of Homestead, capturing a range of the former steel town's current residents -- black, white, young, old.

It's a massive undertaking, with portrait appointments in the morning and open walk-in sessions in the afternoon, followed by printing and labeling photos.

"It's completely nuts," she said of her work schedule. "I planned for full throttle freight train movement of work. But it's worth it, completely worth it."

Homestead was the logical choice for the project because of its significance -- both in the past and now, Ms. Strauss said. "Homestead is one of the most important American cities, albeit just a city of a little more than 3,000 right now.

"It's interesting how deeply connected everyone seems to be, even though they might not know each other. But through the way the structure of the city works, it's small and it's very close. There's a lot of history that connects one person to another."

One of the common threads that appeared during these portrait sessions is a strong sense of connection to place. "People want to live where they're from, they want to be here."

It's a feeling she identifies with. "I'm from Philadelphia, born and raised there. Thinking of the idea of what it would be to have to leave is not just untenable, it's unthinkable.

Homestead residents "are kind of trying to navigate what it means to move forward after the economic devastation that came post-mill closing, just the generalized inability to know what to do after such a catastrophic economic disaster. I knew it, but not really until I got here, what that loss meant."

Ms. Strauss is also creating a series of projections that will be shown at the historic Homestead Steel Works Pump House, the site of the violent clash between Pinkerton agents and steelworkers during the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike. The installation runs concurrently with the International. The hours are not yet determined.

Carnegie Steel once owned the Homestead Works, and Andrew Carnegie's name is on the building where Ms. Strauss' Homestead images are hanging. She hopes people who come to the exhibit will think about that complex relationship.

"I hope they take away the sense that the museum was built not by singular wealth, but rather through an industry and a community whose labor actually created the wealth. To me it's very important to acknowledge that it's really the Homestead Works that built that wealth. That's who built that building. And here's the community that's here now.

"To me that's what matters the most."

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Adrian McCoy: or 412-263-1865. First Published October 2, 2013 4:00 AM


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