Telling the Story of the Great Recession Through Billboards
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America is struggling through the second worst recession in its history. The first — the Great Depression — brought with it now-iconic images of breadlines, the dustbowl, the Hoover Dam, and the working poor of America. Integral to the visual history of the Great Depression are the photographs of Walker Evans, who documented the rural poor for the Farm Security Administration. Evans’ photographs, published in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” have become iconic images relating to the first Great Depression.
Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss cites Evans as one of her heroes and inspirations. Strauss’ mid-career retrospective is ongoing now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and provides a look at her ten-year photograph project, entitled “95.” Though “95” is expansive, Strauss’ primary subject matter is the working class, focusing on populations that are either forgotten by the general public, or offered meaningless platitudes by politicians. As part of the retrospective, the Museum has partnered with Clear Channel to place more than fifty billboards of Strauss’ photographs throughout Philadelphia.
No photograph on a billboard is identical to one in the gallery space, thus radically extending the reach of the exhibition. The billboards are placed throughout the city in strategic locations. Commuters and travelers, looking up after exiting the West Entrance at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia are greeted with two billboards standing side by side. The billboards have no corporate logos, no slogans, nothing to sell. They simply show photographs American life. One photograph, taken in Grand Isle, Louisiana, shows a homemade plywood sign that reads “Don’t Forget Us” in red spray paint. Grand Isle was hit hard by the BP oil spill, and the sign is both a plea and reproach to the rest of America.
Another billboard shows a shabby alleyway between the row homes of the 6200 block of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. On May 13, 1985, more than 60 of these homes were destroyed during a famously violent confrontation between the MOVE organization and the Philadelphia City Police. The confrontation culminated in the Police dropping a bomb onto the roof of a row house where the MOVE group was based. The initial blast and subsequent fire killed 11 people, including five children, and decimated the entire block.
The travesty did not end there, but continued with the City’s attempt at reconstruction of the block. Mayor Wilson Goode, who had sanctioned the MOVE bombing, oversaw the redevelopment project. The construction company hired by the City was both incompetent as well as criminal, most of the money was embezzled, and both owners served jail time for crimes related to the project. The billboard shows what is left of the so-called “redevelopment:” derelict homes, poorly built and already falling apart. Behind the billboard sit the homes themselves, just a few blocks west from where Strauss’ depiction of them.
Of the MOVE bombing, Strauss says, "we need to remember, both as a city government, as well as a community." Although “95” is not explicitly anti-advertising or subvertising, especially since 40 of the billboards have been donated by Clear Channel, Strauss maintains that the intent of the project is to diminish the omnipresence of advertising in public space. According to Strauss, "the billboards will exhibit photos without text, branding or logos. They effectively eliminate 53 spaces available for advertising." In place of advertisements for cigarettes and cheap mattresses, Strauss’ images speak to the surrounding neighborhood, honest representatives of the American experience in the 21ist Century – just as Walker Evans represented those of the 20th.
All images (c) K. Scott Kreider.
This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.