LaToya Ruby Frazier and Tony Buba both grew up in Braddock, Pa., a town so devastated by the steel mill closings and crack epidemics of the 1980s that it was used as an apocalyptic setting for the 2009 movie The Road. Yet, for these artists, the town remains a compelling subject not because of its deterioration, but because of the people who continue to make Braddock their home.
Buba and Frazier will appear together Saturday, May 5 at the Big Car Service Center for a pitch-in dinner and talk. In a spoken narrative lecture over images of their work, they will provide commentary on their show Inheritance, currently on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art and featuring Frazier's black and white photography alongside Buba's documentary film work.
Buba and Frazier approach their subjects from different generational perspectives - Buba was born in 1944 and Frazier in 1982 - but both offer unvarnished takes on the complexities and inequalities of life in Braddock, as well as in the steel country of Western Pennsylvania as a whole.
Frazier's photographs largely focus on her growing up with her African-American family, but she also takes her camera into the streets of Braddock to record what she finds there. Buba's work on view at iMOCA documents the struggle for equality in the steel mills in Western Pennsylvania in interviews with African-American steelworkers.
Frazier: In the path of Riis and Hine
Frazier, who now lives in New Jersey, where she teaches and curates at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, has expanded the range of her art in recent years from the large-format silver print photographs for which she is best known, into the realm of performance, writing, and video. The photographs, however, are the centerpiece of her work on view at iMOCA.
In one photograph, "The World is Yours," which depicts said slogan as part of a mural on an abandoned building, there's a disconnect between the muralists' aspirations for community residents and the derelict setting. But there's also a sad beauty to be found here and there, as in the photograph "6th Street and Washington Ave.," which shows vines crawling up past the darkened windows of an abandoned home.
Frazier says her work shares a kinship with the great documentary photographers of the late 19th century. "I am historically trained in personal and social documentary work," she told NUVO via e-mail. "Similar to the concerns of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, I am concerned about both social and living conditions of people and places that resonate with me."
But Frazier's is a more personal approach than that of those sociologists cum photographers. She began documenting her family in 2002 within the confines of her grandmother's house, which now lies abandoned. Frazier and her mom collaborated on - as well as become subject in - a number of photographs on view at iMOCA, notably "Mom Relaxing My Hair."
"I have an awesome mother who loves art and who has a lot of courage," says Frazier. "She was very involved from the first moment I brought my camera home."
Frazier doesn't shrink from the more difficult aspects of her family's life, such as the multiple illnesses suffered by her step-great-grandfather, a former steelworker. Frazier documented the deterioration of his health in her photographs.
Frazier herself suffers from lupus. In a three-minute color video loop, "Self-Portrait (United States Steel)" (link NSFW) that is part of the iMOCA exhibit, she explicitly draws the connection between her health and the proximity of a U.S. Steel Mill. In the video, a topless Frazier stands side by side with film footage of the mill, breathing heavily, as if taking in the toxins fuming out of the plant.
Her documentation of the fight of Braddock residents to save from closure the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center [UPMC] - a primary source of health care for the majority African-American residents - led her to meeting Tony Buba for the first time.
Buba: 'We must take action in the telling of these injustices'
"One day I got a call from my cousin who's working at the [UPMC] hospital... before they closed," Buba told NUVO. "And she called me and said, 'There's a young girl taking photos of everybody. And you should come up and meet her.' By the time I got up there she had already left. Two or three weeks later I saw a young woman photographing on the streets with a big camera and introduced myself and that's how we met."
Buba, who has maintained a film studio in Braddock, Braddock Films, since 1972, learned much about filmmaking on a low budget from another Pennsylvania-born director with working class roots, George Romero. Buba had a bit role in Romero's 1976 version of Dawn of the Dead, playing a motorcycle raider who gets his arm ripped off in a blood-pressure machine. The scene was filmed in a mall in Monroeville, 15 minutes from Braddock.
But Buba wasn't interested in making B movies. "Back in the '70s when I first started making films in Braddock I decided this is what I wanted to do... just keep documenting the town," says Buba. One of his most well-known efforts in this regard is the 1996 film Struggles in Steel: A Story of African-American Steelworkers, which he co-directed with Raymond Henderson. This film, on view at iMOCA, chronicles the struggle of African-American steelworkers for equal opportunity, which pitted them against the steel companies, their white co-workers and their own unions.
According to Buba, the biggest concern among his interviewees was that, as a filmmaker, he "would make it softer than what it was," but they needn't have worried. He was no more likely to pull his punches as a filmmaker than Frazier was to deliver a "softer" brand of photograph.
In the iMOCA show, Buba's film work complements Frazier's by providing historical context and background for her photography.
"We both end up dealing with family but our circumstances are so different," says Buba. "Even though Braddock was in its decline as I growing up, America was unbeatable. With LaToya, she was growing up in an era when the mills were closed. For the white community it was rough, but for the African-American community it was really tough. The consent decree was passed in the '70s, so finally, after a hundred years of struggle, African Americans were going to get the decent jobs in the mill. And they were moving up in the seniority ranks... . So the mills crashed, and you had two generations out of work."
Frazier knows that there is a large African-American population in Indy dealing with some of the same issues as her family and their neighbors have dealt with in Braddock - environmental degradation, a lack of affordable healthcare, unemployment.
"I hope my audience [at Service Center] will learn that they are not alone in this struggle," she says. "I also hope they will learn that it is important to document and tell our own stories in order to see ourselves in American history. We can't wait for an outside reporter to tell our story for us. We must take action in the re-telling and telling of the injustices that keep happening to us in hope for new cultural understanding and meaning."