I've never met a genius. I've spent the last 25 years teaching in major research universities. Before that I went to an awfully good grad school, and I'd still be hard pressed to say that I've met anyone that I'd call a genius -- somebody, that is, with the dazzling, superhuman intelligence of, say, a Mr. Peabody.
Then again, I've never met LaToya Ruby Frazier. I did hear her speak at the Look3 photo festival a few years ago, and she was, well, dazzling -- sharp, passionate, and charismatic. Yesterday, the MacArthur Foundation announced that Frazier is one of 24 new MacArthur Fellows. The fellowships are popularly known as "genius awards," so, at the very least, I can now say that I've been in the presence of a certified genius.
But enough kidding around. I don't know if Frazier is a genius, but I do know that she's damn good at what she does. When I talk about her in my photo history classes, it's to use her as an example of the way young artists and photographers are reinventing the documentary form. As a documentarian, she's out to investigate the world as it is. As an innovator, her work is overtly subjective and combines different media -- photos, video, performance -- to tell her stories. It's brilliant stuff and fully deserves the recognition that she's been getting over the last few years.
She talks about her work in the video above. It's certainly worth a few minutes of your time.
Frazier is an activist as much as an artist. In the video, she says that her camera is her "weapon" in a struggle for justice. Last year in an interview with Carolina Miranda of the Los Angeles Times, she went into a little more detail.
Miranda asked her about "ruin porn," photography that's received a lot of attention in the last few years and that's obsessed with the post-industrial landscape.
Frazier's response will give you a good idea where she's coming from: I grew up with those images in the press, in mass media. My work is counter-narrative and a push back against this type of romanticizing. It's not romantic. There’s nothing beautiful about it. I’m showing the human cost of the global economy and the failure of our government to regulate the steel industry, the environmental ruin it has caused. That’s the major focus of my work: the body and the landscape.
Activism -- the sense that one's art can be used to change the world -- brings us to Gordon Parks, whom Frazier calls a major influence in that video that I really hope you watched.
Parks was one of the most significant photographers of the twentieth century. He spent most of his photographic career at Life magazine, where he covered assignments as diverse as high fashion, Trappist monks, midwestern farmers, and movie stars. His most significant work -- the work that he'll be remembered for -- dealt with issues that touched on social justice, especially poverty and race.
In the second video, Frazier offers a magnificent reading of one of Parks photos. She brings her entire self to the reading, blending passion, intelligence, and learning. Just this afternoon, I showed to one of my classes as a perfect example of how to read a photograph.
The image that Frazier looks at is from "Harlem Gang Leader", the first major photo-essay that Parks did for Life. The photo-essay was published in 1948, and, I'm happy to say, was the subject of Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument, a major exhibition that originated at the New Orleans Museum of Art. I served as guest curator when it came to the University of Virginia last fall.