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Premiere of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s First Film!

Artist LaToya Ruby Frazier in costume in front of Levi’s advertisement. SoHo, Manhattan, 12.08.10. Production still from the series New York Close Up. © Art21, Inc. 2011.

In addition to being LaToya’s first documentary film, it features her first performance—which we’re honored to have had the privilege to document. Watch it here: “LaToya Ruby Frazier Takes on Levi’s.”

I have never been to Braddock, Pennsylvania—LaToya Ruby Frazier’s hometown. A suburb of Pittsburgh—where in 1873 Andrew Carnegie founded the first steel mill to use the Bessemer process, revolutionizing industrial production worldwide—I’ve felt the impact of this half square mile town, indirectly, my entire life. I know of its demise: Braddock has become a symbol of de-industrialization, economic stagnation, and environmental pollution. And I’ve also read reports of people trying to change things, with contentiously mixed results, such as in this New York Times Magazine article. But I’ve never been there. Why go there? Who would? “No one’s going to drive to a small steel town in Pennsylvania and see it for themselves,” says LaToya in a recent article for Photo District News on the occasion of a lecture at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph. And sadly, for now at least, she’s right.

The Braddock that I’m most intimately familiar with is one of competing representations: LaToya Ruby Frazier’s unflinching artwork versus a 2010 Levi’s advertising campaign. Representations matter: we wage battles, influence public opinion, and search for meaning in images. “IF everybody’s work is equally important…” is what LaToya posed to us last November when we first met in her studio at the Whitney Independent Study Program, qualifying the slogan that appears in Levi’s campaign ads for the company’s latest clothing line. At the time, she and the artist Liz Magic Laser were debating what could be done to combat what they viewed as an insidious injustice taking place in the media regarding Braddock. Together, we decided that a documentary might be both a forum and form for exploring these complex issues. Complex turned out to be an understatement.

LaToya Ruby Frazier during her Masters Talk at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottsville, North Carolina, 06.11.11. Photo by Brian O’Shea.

New York Close Up is a multi-layered project. One of its goals is to collaborate with contemporary artists, closely and slowly over time, and together discover what the potentials of documentary are for artists today. The resulting short film is the distillation of months of filming, talking, and revising. We worked hard to convey LaToya’s point of view without losing our own: balancing a desire to accurately portray her outrage with the sometimes competing needs for creating a likable portrait, objectively informing the general viewer, and expressing our own artistry through filmmaking. And yet, in the end, we’ve barely scratched the surface. While a potent introduction to LaToya’s work and the situation in Braddock, it’s the journey ahead that’s most exciting.

I have never been to Braddock, Pennsylvania. LaToya’s shown me it’s time for that to change.

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