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Portraits will tell Homestead story

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 7:09 p.m.
Sharon L. Brown
Homestead Portrait Studio, David Anthony Powdrill Sr. getting his portrait taken by Zoe Strauss.
'Blast Furnace Matriarchy' by Zoe Strauss
'David Anthony Powdril Sr.' by Zoe Strauss

Photographer Zoe Strauss' Homestead Portrait Studio is open and ready for business for those who live or work in Homestead, West Homestead, Munhall or the 15120 ZIP code.

Walk-ins are welcome, appointments encouraged. But don't expect to pay a thing. Instead, Strauss wants to hear your story about modern-day life in Homestead, and if you have a past related to the place, especially the Homestead Works that once thrived there, she wants to hear about that, too.

Strauss, 43, isn't your typical portrait photographer. In 2006, she participated in the Whitney Biennial. In 2008, she published her first book, “America.” And last year, the Philadelphia native was honored with a mid-career retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The first critical assessment of her 10-year project to exhibit her photographs annually in a space beneath a section of Interstate 95 in South Philadelphia, the exhibit “Zoe Strauss: Ten Years” showcased Strauss' photographs of a broad range of subjects, but with a primary focus on the working-class experience.

The Homestead Portrait Studio is a continuation of the documentation of that experience, as well as one part of the larger project “Homesteading,” which was commissioned last year for the 2013 Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which opens Oct. 5.

In the past year, Strauss has been assembling images, historical documents, cabinet cards and other ephemera related to Homestead, which she has gathered in the entrance area of her pop-up portrait studio at 215 E. 8th Ave., behind the Tin Front Cafe.

The studio opened on Labor Day, with Strauss planning on keeping it open until the end of the month, or until she reaches 500 portraits. Two hundred of the portraits will find their way into the museum's International exhibition in an installation that involves massive wall graphics and a video presentation of the portraits.

“I have no Internet service at the studio, and limited access across the street, which is pleasurable and difficult, but more pleasurable,” Strauss says. “No phone, no Internet … just walk in during drop-in hours or stop in if the door is open.”

Strauss says Homestead is one of the most important cities in the United States, both historically and currently.

“I would argue that it's one of the most important historical cities in the United States, and also a place that is exemplary in terms of thinking about what it means to move forward after industry leaves, for better or worse,” Strauss says.

With a current population of 3,172, the town and its people still live in the shadow of the Homestead Works, which Andrew Carnegie founded. And thus, Strauss says, the town still holds significance in both labor history and industrial history.

“It's a place that exists mythically in a lot of ways, and, yet, it's still a real place, a spot that's trying to find a way to hold on,” she says.

“I'm very interested in Homestead on the whole and its importance and relevance among cities in the United States that faced deindustrialization, but also Homestead's specific historical significance is so tremendous that it's very unique in the structure of what it means to have its own postindustrial restructuring of a city.”

Strauss is no stranger to taking neighborhood portraits. 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 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.

Now, in Homestead, she says, she wants to not only gather a sense of the past but learn if there is hope for the future.

“It was really hard hit,” Strauss says of the town, which she likens to having been hit by a “giant steamroller that rolled over the community in terms of a total loss of jobs.”

“There's been an awful lot of loss,” she says. “I hadn't fully understood the significance of the job loss until I got here. I mean, you can kind of get a sense, but I didn't quite get the numbers until I arrived of how much was lost.”

Strauss says the goal of her project is to not only create a “community portrait” through photographing its residents, but also “to be able to talk about what's happened here,” she says. “To be able to talk about the way money moves here, and what it means. And it's also to be able to talk about what it means for Homestead to move forward.”

So far, Strauss says there has been a “full range” of subjects who have walked through her door to have their portraits taken.

“There have also been steelworkers who worked at Homestead Works and union members who were invited to come. So, it's a cross-section,” she says. “But for the most part, folks that have come in are from Munhall, Homestead and West Homestead. And that's been a phenomenal cross-section. It's really kind of remarkable.”

Strauss says the portraits she takes and prints on the spot are traditional studio portraits, “in the sense that they look like what you would see when you would go into say a Sears portrait studio.”

“The background, which kind of looks like this very generic blue mottled background, is actually a photo I took in July of the sky over Homestead. So, it's very specific, but you would have no idea because it looks very generic, like one of the backdrops you would pull out from anywhere. So, the specific is universal.”

Though the actual portrait sessions take no more than 20 minutes to a half hour, the portraits are available for pick up at the Homestead Portrait Studio one week after the sitting to allow time for processing.

Visitors are encouraged to book appointments online or by emailing grace@zoestrauss.com, or stop on by the studio at 215 E. 8th Avenue during walk-in hours. The schedule is available at homesteading13.youcanbook.me/

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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