Zoe Strauss at Silverstein Photography

Zoe Strauss's first solo New York show pulled no punches. The exhibition of framed and unframed color photographs (all 2001-06) drew us up close and personal to the urban America we most want to view from a safe distance. As a Camden crack addict, in profile, fires up, the one eye of hers we get to see is peeled wide in haunted desperation. A woman on the street unzips her fly to reveal her hysterectomy scar. Elsewhere, a bullet-pocked restroom door stands beneath hand-painted signage reading "Good Food Here" and an attendant image of steamy-hot chicken. Strauss crops close--at the forehead, or between the letters of graffitied words--so that the viewer and subject occupy a tight and confrontational space. If Garry Winegrand and Nan Goldin had had a love-child, this could be her work.

In the manner of Jacob Riis, Strauss, whose photos were included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, calls attention to the untenable conditions in which today's other half lives. One image puts us inside a white bedroom entirely colonized by black mold, the baby-clothing hanger on the floor a sobering indication of the room's former inhabitant.

With such provocative, at times seedy, subject matter, you might fault Strauss, a native of South Philadelphia, for falling prey to shock for shock's sake or to the all-too-available ironies of late capitalism. The urban landscape, after all, is rife with daft juxtapositions of ecstatic commercialism and glaring squalor, as Strauss's image of a decrepit, near-empty (or has it been ransacked?) outlet store called "Everything" makes plain. But, for all its traveling of well-worn territory, the show packed a considerable wallop. Strauss's probingly sharp eye is attuned as much to Venetian blinds so bent out of shape they could never be opened or shut again, as to the junkies, drag queens and crippled war veterans walking the mean streets. At times, she enlists subjects both tender and slight--a few candy-colored balloons almost anthropomorphize the upright mattresses anchoring them, and well-sheared round shrubs before the blank facade of a tech school attest to the clean appeal of abstracted form. Such images lend all the more credibility to her otherwise unflinchingly tough, head-on photographs.

Art in America, February 2008