Silver Eye Center for Photography presents an exhibition by LaToya Ruby Frazier at two separate locations: On the Making of Steel Genesis: Sandra Gould Ford at the August Wilson Center's BNY Mellon Gallery and The Notion of Family at Silver Eye's Penn Avenue gallery.
On the Making of Steel Genesis: Sandra Gould Ford is a collaborative exhibition that explores the work and life of artist Sandra Gould Ford, whom Frazier first met in 2015 at the Women and Girls Foundation’s Pittsburgh Conference. They soon realized they had a deep connection as Black women artists from Southwestern PA interested in working class issues. They discovered that they once lived in the same apartment building, the Talbot Towers in Braddock—Ford as a newlywed and Frazier as a newborn.
This significant exhibition brings together dozens of works from each artist in several mediums: photographs, writings, documents, and videos. Many of the prints have been made by Frazier as cyanotypes, a 19th century photographic process that renders images in shades of blue, referencing an architect's blueprint and the idea of “blue collar” work. Early cyanotypes of plants were used as scientific records by botanists, creating images that fell between document and artwork.
For this exhibition, Frazier made portraits of Ford and the sites of the former Pittsburgh Works Division of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, which ran along the north and south shores of the Monongahela River for about three and a half miles. These sensitive portraits show many facets of Ford: worker, writer, artist, and mother. Ford’s life experience and knowledge became a way for Frazier to understand what life was like in the mills and what life was like when legendary figures like August Wilson and Teenie Harris were capturing the diversity of Black life in Pittsburgh. Frazier’s breathtaking aerial views show how Pittsburgh has changed--with new condos, retail centers, and barren fields, replacing the factories.
Ford had worked as a clerk and secretary at the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. Founded in 1852, J&L was one of the oldest and largest steel manufacturers in the region. From the late-70s until she was laid off in the mid-80s, Ford learned a tremendous amount about the processes of making steel, and the people who made it. At J&L, cameras were forbidden, however, Ford quietly photographed the blast furnaces, coke ovens, and ladles. Devoted to capturing the spirit of the workers, she diligently photographed inside the plant after it closed. Empathetic for the workers of J&L, Ford carefully photographed the messages they wrote on the plant walls, like “Goodbye Louie” and “Pensions Please.” She also interviewed workers and preserved hundreds of documents, including grievances, death and medical records, and the company magazines.
Ford continues to maintain this archive of photographs, documents, and writings as a history of the mill, a reflection on making steel, and her personal genesis. Excerpts from the archive are included in this exhibition. A renaissance woman, Ford is an artist of many mediums. Her early photographs show influences from W. Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks, and the precisionist paintings of the 1920s, celebrating industry. Later, her photographs depict the dramatic deterioration, and renewal of those lands, in the days and years after the mill closed. These images have an extraordinary eye for the details that were important to those who worked in the factory.
The vibrant conversations that arise from this collaboration speak to the nuances of this region and its history. Fascinated by alchemy, Ford uses the idea of changing lead to gold as a metaphor in her work: turning light and silver into photographs, turning base minerals into steel. Ford also saw a kind of alchemy in this collaboration between Frazier’s concern with conditions that limit humans and Ford’s interest in transcending those conditions.
It is fitting and intentional that this exhibition premier at the August Wilson Center. Much like Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle of plays, On the Making of Steel Genesis shows the Black experience in Pittsburgh and tells the story of ordinary people working to create something beautiful, meaningful, and true while facing great challenges and systemic injustice.
About LaToya Ruby Frazier
LaToya Ruby Frazier (b. 1982) works in photography, video, and performance in order to build visual archives that address industrialism, rustbelt revitalization, environmental justice, health care inequity, family, and communal history. She received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellows Award in 2015. Her work is exhibited widely in the U.S. and internationally, with notable solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Arts of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation (MAC’s); Brooklyn Museum; Seattle Art Museum; Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston); and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. In 2015, her first book The Notion of Family (Aperture, 2014) received the International Center for Photography Infinity Award. This fall, Frazier’s new catalogue about coal miners, And From the Coaltips a Tree Will Rise, will be published by MAC’s Grand-Hornu (The Museum of Contemporary Arts Belgium). Frazier is an Associate Professor in the Photography Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
About Sandra Gould Ford
Sandra Gould Ford is an award-winning author, artist, and accomplished educator who presents writing and arts experiences that encourage, refresh, enrich creative thinking, and inspire. Her first novel, Faraday's Popcorn Factory, was published by St. Martin's Press. Ford has won several writing awards, including the Nelson Algren and Writer's Digest. Ford has also received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and from The Pittsburgh Foundation, and she has been awarded a Dow Creativity Center Fellowship and residencies from the Ucross Foundation, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, Ragdale, Millay, and Dorland. Ford founded Shooting Star Productions, and the Shooting Star Review, a quarterly illustrated, literary magazine that was published for ten years. Ford’s photographs have been published in Talk Magazine and the New Pittsburgh Courier, and her writing has accompanied her photography in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Pittsburgh Press, and Pittsburgh Magazine. Ford holds a master's degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.
Image Credit: LaToya Ruby Frazier, Sandra Gould Ford sitting on the Bank the Monongahela River in Braddock, PA, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome.