The Notion of Family

As its title suggests, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Notion of Family (2014) presents kinship not as an irrefutable fact but as a concept—a bond, to be sure, but one that is both weakened and reinforced by the ways people think about it. In Braddock, Pennsylvania, where all the book’s photographs were shot, families, and the notions that help define them, have come under relentless attack. The book’s running text gives ample evidence of how white flight, segregation, and the elimination of jobs have damaged homes, which the photographs capture in various states of decay and demolition, and also “the home”: Families here are undermined by poverty, inadequate housing, and an absence of social services. Frazier’s work captures the dissolution of this community with a powerful specificity, showing, for instance, the destruction of the local hospital, the closing of which denied the town accessible health care and eliminated hundreds of jobs. Many of the photographs, printed in black-and-white hues that suggest a ubiquitous patina of factory grime, portray Frazier’s family—particularly her mother and grandmother—and their rooms, where the well-organized trappings of family life (family photographs, dolls) suggest a fortress against the fate of other interiors, characterized by peeling paint and water-stained floors. Frazier offers a perspective from the inside, and her images achieve a muted power without being sentimental or sensational. It’s fitting that some of the people shown here are topless, or pantsless: This is a struggle laid bare. Frazier shows us a world that is hard to escape, but there is hope for justice—and a Braddock in which families have a running chance—in this masterful exposure of a criminally neglected community.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Momme (Floral Comforter), 2008, gelatin silver print, 24 × 28".