Born in Philadelphia, Strauss was given a camera for her 30th birthday and started taking pictures of life in the city’s marginal neighborhoods. She is a photo-based installation artist who uses Philadelphia as a primary setting and subject for her work. Out in the streets, Strauss typically photographs whatever strikes her interest, paying particular attention to the overlooked (or purposefully avoided) details of life.
In 1995, she started the Philadelphia Public Art Project, a one-woman organization whose mission is to give the citizens of Philadelphia access to art in their everyday lives. Strauss’s photographic work culminates in a yearly “Under I-95” show, which takes place beneath the Interstate highway inSouth Philadelphia. She displays her photographs on concrete pillars under the highway and sells photocopied prints of her work for $5 each. Strauss now calls the Philadelphia Public Art Project an “epic narrative” of her own neighborhood. “When I started shooting, it was as if somewhere hidden in my head I had been waiting for this,” she says.
In 2002, she received a Seedling Award in photography from the Leeway Foundation. In 2005, she received a Pew Fellowship. In 2006, her work was included in the Whitney Biennial; she also mounted a solo exhibition, ”Ramp Project: Zoe Strauss” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.
Zoe Strauss was named a 2007 USA Gund Fellow and granted $50,000 by United States Artists, an arts advocacy foundation dedicated to the support and promotion of America’s top living artists.
The first member of her immediate family to graduate from high school, Strauss is deeply connected to her roots and her surroundings. She frequently shoots near her grandparents’ former home at 16th and Susquehanna, and her mother lives a few blocks from Strauss’ rowhouse (her father died when she was 6). Three younger siblings – there are three surnames between them – are artistic, “super smart and engaging.” Brother Cosmo Baker is a noted DJ in Philadelphia and New York.
Strauss’s photos of shuttered buildings, empty parking lots and vacant meeting halls illuminate her South Philly neighborhood’s grim character. Her intimate portraits capture the dignified resignation of its residents. Strauss says her work is “a narrative about the beauty and difficulty of everyday life.”
Zoe Strauss is the author of America, published November 2008 by AMMO Books.