Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss frames labor and community in a Homestead portrait shop.

Homesteading: Portraying the Town Where Steel Was King

On the same ground where men forged the steel for the Empire State building and once mutinied against Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie, you can now buy clearance Yankee candles. Or New Balance sneakers. Or bottomless appetizers. Or all three of these and anything else a strip mall can yield. Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss’s work lives in that dichotomy.

Commissioned by Carnegie Museum of Art, Strauss lived in Homestead for two months while shooting 205 local studio portraits, including a motorcyclist and a wedding party, for a print and video installation in the 2013 Carnegie International.

Strauss’s Homesteading shoot drew subjects from across the neighborhood, as well as current and retired United Steelworkers members, to her studio on 8th Street. What started as a traditional portrait studio, like the neighborhood had during the mill years, became a makeshift community center. Neighbors came to sit and laugh and share artifacts of yesteryear, previously tucked away in basements and attics.

While the physical studio is important, Strauss said, the exhibit is about “the shifting structure of community” and allowing people to discuss and present their image within the museum—“something that matters a great deal.”

Strauss picked up a camera at age 30 in 2000, then shot 10 years of annual one-day exhibitions which she displayed on pillars underneath the I-95 overpass in South Philadelphia.

Strauss steps back but still fusses over her work. She shaped her I-95 exhibits so the viewer “constructs the narrative instead of being told what they’re seeing,” but also hosted office hours in the Philadelphia Museum of Art to answer questions about what they were seeing.

Strauss’s work makes everyday marginalism poetic, but she is not anything even “remotely like a visual anthropologist.” She is more interested in the Homesteading images as metaphors, and the project’s beauty lies in the piece’s connections and oppositions—what the realities and abscesses reveal when connected to the past.

Three portraits (left to right): a smiling well-dressed man looks to the right of frame, a shirtless, tattooed man poses, and a woman with lots of makeup smiles at the camera.
Zoe Strauss, Homesteading, 2013. From left to right, portraits of Eddie McDonald, Gerald Stiner, and Erica Franklin. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gifts of the Artist.

“[Homestead is] this place that really contributed to all of our lives in a way that we don’t necessarily see,” Strauss said.

Once the hub of Carnegie’s flagship plant and the deadly five-month 1892 labor strike, Homestead became a mixture of shopping centers with national retailers—Dave and Buster’s backdropped by the original smokestacks—and some 3,000 people occupying a town originally built for more than 20,000.

“To me it’s very important to acknowledge that it’s really the Homestead Works that built that wealth. That’s who built [the museum]. And here’s the community that’s here now,” Strauss told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2013.

Strauss valued each print at $1,000—to share the wealth—keeping one copy, gifting one copy to the participant, and leaving the third with the museum. Homesteading lives on at Strauss’s Tumblr.

Since its inception in 1896, the Carnegie International has been Carnegie Museum of Art’s signature survey series, the preeminent exhibition of new international art in the United States. To learn more about the artists and artworks showcased throughout the history of the exhibition, visit the archives.