Winner of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, LaToya Ruby Frazier works in the superannuated tradition of the documentary photo-essay, the kind that once filled Life magazine. Three different bodies of her black-and-white prints fill Gavin Brown’s capacious Harlem digs, and while they may belong to a now-fusty genre, they manage to seem both fresh and compelling.
On the ground floor, the series “Flint Is Family” (2016–17) chronicles the ongoing crisis in the predominantly African-American Michigan city through the experience of a single family: Shea Cobb; her young daughter, Zion; and her mother, Renée. The images show the Cobbs and their community struggling to deal with a poisoned water supply: Shea brushing Zion’s teeth with bottled water in her bathroom—a close-up of a trusting child, her mother’s hand jutting into the frame to carefully pour liquid from a clear plastic bottle into her mouth—pictures a moment of tenderness made all the more poignant by the specter of government malfeasance. Though the genre of socially conscious photography doesn’t get much traction anymore, Frazier revives the form by drawing intimately close to her subjects.
“The Notion of Family” (2001–14), on the gallery’s second floor, spotlights three generations of women—the artist, her mother and her aging grandmother—all living in straitened circumstances in Frazier’s hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a hollowed-out steel town near Pittsburgh. Ordinary scenes build a cumulative sense of the characters, as in the empty, none-too-clean Grandma Ruby’s bathroom at 40 Holland Avenue (2009), which evokes the aging matriarch by depicting a seat inside the tub.
Elsewhere, UPMC Professional Building Doctors’ Offices (2011) points to Braddock’s socioeconomic depredations. Portrayed as an eerie disaster site, with a potted plant still atop a desk inside the half-demolished edifice, UPMC was the city’s only local hospital before shuttering in 2010.
UPMC’s ruins, as well as the cluttered interiors of the Frazier family’s home, rhyme visually with the final series, on the fourth floor, “A Pilgrimage to Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum” (2016–17). In this group of large prints, the artist records a visit to see the shambolic outdoor assemblages of the eponymous Purifoy, an African-American artist who lived in Joshua Tree, California, until his death in 2004 at age 87. In many of these photos, a mysterious, blanketed figure—with a shattered mirror for a face—stands implacably amid the ramshackle constructions, like a guardian or spirit, lending an otherworldly presence to Frazier’s views of the sunbaked sculptures. Much like Purifoy’s art, Frazier’s images conjure something unexpectedly imperative from the ordinary stuff of the world.
Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, 439 W 127th St (212-627-5258, gavinbrown.biz). Through Feb 25.