It’s the kind of Mother’s Day card you might give if you come from an especially unflinching family: A mother stands tall and imposing in front of the camera, facing it squarely and glaring at it. The daughter stands behind her mother–she’s slim enough that her body fits entirely behind her mom’s, as her face looks away and down. Their two shadows merge on the wall, creating one larger, indistinct shadow. The mother is fighting to protect the daughter, the daughter is willing to take shelter, and yet there’s that private look away from the camera, that looming shadow. A mother’s protection and a daughter’s acceptance won’t be enough. No one can protect a child completely, even when the child wants to be sheltered.
This is one of the most striking photographs in the Brooklyn Museum’s small show dedicated to Pennsylvania photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier (running only until August 11, so you should make time to go soon). There are a few extra photos from Frazier in the “American Identities” permanent collection on the fifth floor, so don’t miss those. But the main show, “A Haunted Capital,” is an attempt to tell the story of a decaying industrial town through the story of her own family. She created wallpaper which juxtaposes the heyday of the steel mill, protesters carrying signs alleging racism at the local hospital, and tender family portraits. Some of the urban landscape or slice-of-life photos here are excellent: “UPMC Braddock Hospital and Parking Lot,” from 2011, shows an abandoned building so destroyed that it looks like it’s been clawed open. The thin drifts of snow and contrasting diagonal lines create balance and suspension in the composition, taking it beyond reportage. “Mom and Me at the Phase,” from 2007, shows her mom wryly settled in at a local bar hung with Christmas stockings and festooned with a big bow; there’s a Robert Frank feeling in Frazier’s mother’s careful hair and makeup, and her holiday isolation.
The best pieces in the show is about Frazier’s family. She has an unexpected respect for the sentiment and kitsch with which we pad our habitats. Because so many of these photos are family portraits and tributes, there’s a sweetness and gentleness to the exhibit’s tone. Her grandmother collected dolls, and there are several portraits in which dolls or other bric-a-brac dominate; there’s an especially blunt one in which Frazier’s mom sits on a bed, slightly slumped, beside a big sprawling cat, surrounded by cute pictures of kittens and Jesus. In other hands this could have been a sneering portrait or a merely ironic one. Look, that’s the fake and this is the reality! But the real person chose the kitschy pictures. They spoke to something in her, and so they, too, are real.
Some of the photos are a little too self-consciously blunt. “Grandma Ruby Wiping Gramps” does what it says in the title. I think the reminder that we’ll all have to wipe the behinds of the ones we love as they age, and submit to that humiliating care in our own old age, has become a commonplace to the point of cliche; the image is simultaneously intrusive yet not illuminating. And the wall captions’ quotes from Frazier herself are often unnecessary, recapitulating things we already know from the photos themselves: “Between my background and my foreground, I am not sure where I stand.” Right, that’s why there’s a contrast between background and foreground, why your face is half in shadow, and lots of other stuff in the photo to suggest someone caught between alternatives.
But the best pictures in this show are unforgettable. Frazier sitting with her grandmother, her hair done up like a little girl’s with fat braids and flowing ribbons: And the doors swing back and forward/From the past into the present…. Frazier sitting on her bed, chronicling one of her attacks of lupus (illness and its treatment is one of the show’s quiet and powerful themes–how you get ill, and how your illness and your body are treated, if you’re black and working-class), staring at the camera, caught and challenging, a jumble of asymmetries. These are haunting photos from a thoughtful artist who manages to be both tender and uncompromising.