LaToya Ruby Frazier uses black and white photography, video, text, and performance art to show how geographic location and environment impact the human body and spirit. She documents personal and social histories of communities suffering from unemployment, poverty, racism, industrial decline, and environmental disasters. She creates photographic series by collaborating with the people from these communities. This began with a series on her home town of Braddock, Pennsylvania and continued with people from Flint, Michigan; Lordstown, Ohio; and with miners and their families from a former coal-mining community in Belgium.
In 1999, Frazier took her first photography class at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania where she studied the work of Dorothea Lange, who photographed the rural poor during the Great Depression. Frazier graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004. She received her M.F.A. from Syracuse University in 2007. She taught photography at Rutgers University and was a curator at the university’s art gallery. She participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program in 2011 and received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2015. By then she was teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Frazier currently lives and works in Chicago. When she was sixteen, she began photographing her family and home town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. She used her family as a springboard to talk about society and social issues. Her family lived five miles from the town’s steel plant. When the steel industry collapsed, businesses in Braddock folded, and homes were abandoned. Crack infiltrated the community, and the poor were criminalized. Frazier chronicled the health problems of her family and the environmental crisis facing Braddock in her series of 108 portraits, “The Notion of Family,” 2001-2014. She herself suffers from lupus and a neurological disorder as she likely grew up drinking carcinogenic tap water and breathing various chemicals known to cause autoimmune diseases. Her mother was often in surgery, and her grandmother died of pancreatic cancer.
Not only did she photograph Braddock and its people, but she also did performance art to protest dire conditions there. Braddock was used as a place where Levi’s Jeans made commercials. She protested the hypocrisy of one of its ads which read, “everybody’s work is equally important.” While Levi’s was filming in her town, the local hospital was torn down. Over 600 people were fired leaving them with no jobs and leaving all the people in the town without access to health care. To protest the hypocrisy of the Levi’s ad, Frazier made a series of movements on the sidewalk in New York City in front of the temporary Levi’s Photo Workshop in SoHo. She writhed and crawled on the sidewalk in constant motion destroying the Levi Jeans she was wearing.
From 2016 – 2017 Frazier spent months living in Flint, Michigan documenting the effects of water pollution and contamination. She used one family – consisting of three generations of women – as her focus. This photo essay, “Flint Is Family,” came out in “Elle” in August 2016, but Frazier kept photographing. The second part of the 170-work series portrays members of this family in a different setting in a different state. When the family returned to Flint in 2017, the water was still poisonous. Frazier mounted a campaign to publicize the lead exposure and donated money from her solo show at a commercial gallery to pay for an atmospheric water generator, which produces up to 2,000 gallons of free water daily.
In 2018, Frazier created a series of 67 photographs, “The Last Cruze,” documenting the closing of the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio. The company was done making the Chevrolet Cruze, and the effect on the community was dire. She spent several months with members of the automotive union, UAW Local 1112, in Lordstown as the economic crisis unfolded. Her “The Last Cruze” is a moving volume of portraits, interviews, and videos with the autoworkers and their families.
In 2011, Frazier’s work was exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem and at the Venice Biennale. She has participated in group exhibitions in various museums such as New York’s New Museum and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. She has had solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, Seattle Museum, among others and in 2020 won the Kraszna-Krausz Photography Book Award.