A name like "Philadelphia Public Art Project" may conjure up impressions of a big city, tax-funded bureaucracy bubbling with liberal arts majors who generate loads of paperwork and very little art.
But it's the other way around. "PAP" turns out a mass of photographs that are artful, intriguing, documentary and often included in or at the core of major art happenings. But it has no bureaucrats, or staff for that matter. It's a one-woman affair.
"I'm the full group," said Zoe Strauss.
Which is good because, she admits, she could never manage a large group. "Only within my work am I given to organization," she said.
Strauss is an installation artist-turned-photographer whose star has risen dramatically since winning a Pew grant and exhibiting in the Whitney Biennial in New York, events that launched her into celebrity status almost overnight.
She's in town this month, thanks to grants from the United States Artists Fellows program and the Rasmuson Foundation, as an artist-in-residence with the Anchorage Museum and the International Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Her Alaska sojourn follows on the heels of her new book of photographs, "America" (AMMO Books, 2008). A New York Times review called her images "not without tenderness, but their harsh, unblinking force is like a punch in the face."
Recurring subjects in the book, mostly taken in 2007, include ghetto decay, industrial grit, drug users, reservation poverty and the havoc wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
Yet Strauss presents her view of chaos with clarity (most photos have a sharp focus) and formality. Things like beds and cars are shown in pairs, and the sequence of photos is sometimes repeated, generating a sense of balance.
"I felt the book needed a lot of pairing, comparisons," she said, "front-and-back mirroring."
Similarly, the varied urban landscapes showing "vibrant houses in decaying communities, or vibrant communities in a setting of decaying buildings" are her way of trying to capture "the ebb and flow of things in one place over a long period of time."
It's a tall order. "A picture gives you an indication of it, but you can't get the whole thing," she said and referred to the dominant feature on Anchorage's skyline, the Chugach range. "The mountains change at least five times a day," she said.
Human subjects are the images most likely to fix in the viewer's mind, full-face portraits of store clerks, close-ups of junkies and lovers, action shots of children on the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation.
Each photo tells a story, and Strauss is happy to tell you about it. There's Monique, a prostitute shown festooned in tattoos; a later photo shows her after a beating, her face swollen, cut, purple and unrecognizable.
"Monique was my neighbor," Strauss said. In the book she recounts not knowing the girl's name when she took the first photo -- and the e-mail she received not long after taking the second one:
"My name is Gina. You don't know me. You had taken a picture of my daughter Monique a few years ago. ... I'm sorry to say that Monique has passed away. My heart is so broken. But I want to thank you for taking that photo."
The people who look into her lens tend to reveal something about themselves in a willing manner. Like Art, a retiree living in a trailer in the middle of nothing, Nevada. Strauss' portrait shows him holding an antique revolver that the caption tells us is loaded.
"I don't know why strangers let me into their homes, and I don't know why I often have little or no fear going in," she writes in the book.
One reason why people may warm to her on first encounter is the way she instinctively generates a kind of zone of chumminess. Short and energetic, she eagerly answers questions and asks a bunch of her own, as interested in those she meets as they may be in her, contributing to the talk without commandeering it, tapping a shoulder or touching a hand in the course of conversation and insisting on a hug when parting.
Speech, or rather words, are another favorite subject for her camera. "How Do I Look?" read the letters on a mirror. "The change is forever" says a military recruitment poster over a boarded-up building as an old man with a crutch passes below the ice gaze of the Marine in the billboard. "Everything is not $1.00" announces what looks like a store sale sign.
The double-take irony seems to draw her to these subjects. The hand-drawn words "Paris in Jail" on an outdoor reader board tickled her. "How is it possible that someone thinks that was something to say?" she wondered.
Strauss was born to what she described as a "lower middle class working family" in 1970. Aside from a little time in Nevada, she grew up mostly in Philadelphia.
She never went to college. Instead she worked "an endless series of jobs" from record stores to baby-sitting and found self-expression in installation art. Around 2000 she got a camera and had the idea of making more use of photos in her installation work.
The photos made it into local exhibits, and her free public displays (under a freeway, for instance) got people's attention. In 2005 she won a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. One of the jurors on the panel was also the curator of the Whitney Museum's high profile Biennial show. She invited Strauss to take part in it. The critics and public were impressed, and she found herself famous.
"It was a full-blown nut fest," she said, "a perfect storm of skill and luck."
Since then she's shown widely in the US and Europe, where her raw, inclusive views of America attract much interest.
She remains earthy despite the fame. She reads widely but particularly enjoys science fiction. Her favorite television show is "30 Rock." "Tina Fey was born and bred in Philly," she noted. She characterized her enthusiasm for rocker Bruce Springsteen as "evangelical."
But her main pastime remains her roots in the old, diverse, run-down neighborhoods of her hometown. Close family lives within a few blocks of her. The family of her partner, Lynn Bloom, lives within two hours.
"Family is my hobby," Strauss said.
At the time of this interview, she had just arrived in Alaska and wasn't sure how best to spend her time. "For now, I just want to feel out the city and maybe a little bit further," she said.
She hoped to get to Fairbanks -- "I've got to see the northern lights!" -- and otherwise explore the area's geography.
"I hadn't thought about it before, but now that I'm here I'm blown away by it. I didn't think I would have such a strong, strong desire to see more of the land."
Above all, she said, she was excited about how young Anchorage is as a community. "My home is a 1910 row house," she said. "The oldest thing here is new to me."
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.