Book Review: The Notion of a Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier
By Leah Pfenning
A descendent of
I embrace my heritage
This is how LaToya Ruby Frazier introduces herself in her debut photography book, The Notion of Family. Frazier’s book lumbers viewers through the disenfranchised community of Braddock, Pennsylvania a deindustrialized suburb where the only restaurant and meet-up spot in town exists in the local hospital. Frazier explores the nuances of family as they teeter on the heels of a town in economic decline. The book is at once personal and overtly politically, capturing an untouched snapshot of racism and classism in modern America.
Frazier’s work is striking in its simplicity. There is nothing “put on”, so to speak, in her photos which she credits her mother and her grandmother Ruby as co-collaborators. The photography is shot in typical black and white documentary style, but instead of an outsider looking in, as so much of documentary photography is, an insider reflects on her own circumstances, which gives the work an inimitable poignancy.
The formidable shadow of the bygone steel mill and the void of the town hospital are two significant invisible subjects in Frazier’s book. We see the ashes from the old steel mill in Gramp’s wasted body, in the sediment of an ionic footbath, in the empty storefronts on Main Street. An industry that once promised economic advancement for unskilled workers in exchange for their backs and lungs has expired with technological evolution and offshore outsourcing. What is left are the intoxicants of a pyrrhic promise to a marginalized community. What is left Frazier answers, is us, what’s left is my family.
The Notion of Family refutes glamorizing a depressed community; instead Frazier focuses on relationships. Her relationship to her mother and to her grandmother Ruby, their relationship to Braddock over three generations, Braddock’s relationship to Gramps, to Main Street, to the hospital that was shut down as it was deemed “under-used” and therefore a waste of money. These relationships give shape to an experience. Frazier opens us up to a history, an experience, maybe not our own, but one in which through it’s honesty, through the rawness, we can relate. And if we can relate, then maybe there is hope that we can see. That is what Frazier is fighting for through her photography. Let them see. Let them see.
All images © LaToya Ruby Fraizer