LaToya Ruby Frazier was just a teenager when she began the body of work shown in WITNESS, but even then she showed, as The New York Times has remarked, a “preternatural” maturity.
Frazier’s upbringing in Braddock, Pennsylvania, was imprinted by the drastic downsizing of the Pittsburgh-area town’s Edgar Thomson Steel Works in the early 80s that prompted many residents to flee. Homes and businesses were abandoned, infrastructure and amenities crumbled, the national crack epidemic took hold, and urban families found themselves subject to widespread vilification. “Every stereotype you can think of is what I grew up seeing in the media,” Frazier says. “We were demonized as bad, poor, black drug addicts.”
In college, Frazier was impacted by Farm Security Administration photographers Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Dorothea Lange, especially Lange’s famous Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936. “No one ever talked about her and her name,” Frazier says, “and it made me become very sensitive to subjectivity, and the personal, and a person being able to represent themselves.”
WITNESS, she says, is “the story of economic globalization and the decline of manufacturing as told through the bodies of three generations of African American women”: her Grandma Ruby, her mother, and herself. Primarily we see the women at home: Grandma Ruby lights a cigarette in her doll-filled living room; Frazier gets her hair relaxed by her mother. More formal images, including a series of dual self-portraits that often bear some version of the title “Momme,” allow Frazier and her mother to assert their own identities.