Some Notes on Zoe Strauss’
Use of the Word ‘Epic’ to Describe her Work
“I-95 was an epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life…”
-- “30 to 40,” Zoe Strauss in Zoe Strauss 10 Years
On Sunday, January 15, 2012 I went to a “Special Exhibition Lecture” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a panel discussion to celebrate the opening of Zoe Strauss 10 Years. Zoe talked about her work with photographers Sally Stein and Allen Sekula, and Peter Barberie, curator of photographs at the museum. On the panel, talk turned to Zoe’s use of the term “epic” to describe the narrative in her work. Georg Lukacs’ definition of the form from his 1916 Theory of the Novel didn’t come up in the discussion, but since his characterization of the epic is the one most familiar to me, I found myself jotting down ideas about Zoe and Lukacs in my notebook. Strangely, Lukacs helped me articulate a lot of what I see and feel in Zoe’s work, so I wanted to risk sounding like a grad student (which I am sometimes), and try to write a few words about his definition of epic and Zoe’s images.
First, strictly speaking, Lukacs would say that it is impossible for Zoe’s work to be an epic because narrative forms for him are reflections of their “historico-philosophical situation.” Simply put, the world that produced that form doesn’t exist anymore therefore the form can’t exist anymore. We live in a different historical moment structured by a different set of philosophies. For Lukacs, the world situation of the epic is one in which a cosmic totality is self-evident to the individuals inhabiting it. It’s a world imbued with immanent meaning so that each person understands her place and purpose within a cosmic and social order. Odysseus, for instance, never doubts his position or mission. He simply acts and the gods interact with him. The world is ordered and unified and each participant within that world understands this order and unity. And perhaps, most importantly, the epic hero’s actions are not private or individual. They are “significant to a great organic life complex—a nation or a family.” Or, as The Stylistics say: “You are everything/and everything is you.” (See Zoe's catalog essay) Because the epic form creates such a world, Lukacs assumes that it emerged from a similar material reality.
It’s not important here if Lukacs was right about the real world that made the epic. What’s interesting is his need to project this particular ideal onto an ancient past because of a sense of loss he feels in his own time. I mean, he is supposed to be writing a theory of narrative literature, but his sentences read like the tragic notes of someone mourning the state of civilization: “The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God. The novel hero’s psychology is demonic; the objectivity of the novel is the mature man’s knowledge that meaning can never quite penetrate reality, but that, without meaning, reality would disintegrate into the nothingness of inessentiality.” (88) That’s not exactly the dry prose of an academic. Lukacs’ melancholy permeates his description of the novel’s world because he is describing his world (and the early version of ours)—an alienated world in which the purpose of any individual human life is unclear. The reason he gives for this social reality is “the incommensurability of soul and work.” (97) Or, modern capitalism. In the epic world the hero knew: “You are everything/and everything is you.” The novel’s hero wonders, “Who am I and why am I here?” because his labor no longer clearly defines his purpose within a community. What Lukacs argues by making alienated labor the defining factor of modernity’s social and literary forms is that this world is structured by a depleted definition of what it means to be a human being. It reduces the citizen to Homo Economicus. The novel, then, narrates an individual’s attempt to define herself as something more, to find meaning in a society that only offers her an impoverished definition of what it means to be human.
What does this have to do with Zoe’s photos? Everything, I think. If we take Zoe’s use of the word epic seriously, which I very much do, we could say that her portraits are trying to put people who have been reduced to inhabiting novelistic forms into an enriching epic structure. Her portraits and non-portraits alike give the sense of a polis whose forms do not hold. Walls crack and leak just as people are cut and scarred and all these ruptures echo against one another. A mattress is stained it seems by a bodily life the world never had any room for. The terrain she covers is rough—everyone and everything seems at least slightly battered and bruised. But Zoe’s witnessing of these people and places I would say is utopian in its desires—an inversion of Lukacs logic. If Lukacs’ argument is based on the assumption that material life defines aesthetic form, Zoe’s work suggests that aesthetic form can push back and begin to redefine social reality. Her camera gives her subjects the opportunity to be included in a public life that doesn’t exactly exist within our culture. The portraits become themselves a kind of social space that graciously acknowledge her subjects’ existence and significance and relationships to the world around them.
This happens in the portraits because they are palpably a collaboration. You know by looking at the images that Zoe isn’t defining the characters in them but allowing people to present themselves to her. After looking at her photos and hearing her talk about her process, I had the very real sense that these people had long awaited her arrival and had long thought about how they would like to be seen in this world, if anyone ever cared to look. A sense of intimacy defines the images and so it was natural that at her talk we as an audience were curious about her process, about her relationships to the people in the pictures. I was thankful when someone finally asked her about it. She said that she only knew each of the individuals long enough to take the photos. Her interactions with them included nothing more than her self-introduction as a photographer and the time it took to take the shots. I was baffled with this response because of an image I had seen in the show earlier that afternoon—a man posing nude on a hotel bed somewhere in Las Vegas. When I saw it, I immediately wondered how Zoe got into that room. That photo made it so I didn’t completely buy her answer about not knowing her subjects. So I pressed her with a follow-up question about the nude, prefacing that her answer to the original question made sense for street photos, but so many of the portraits entered into extremely private spaces.
She answered by telling the story of that man's photo. Zoe had seen the guy standing outside a hotel room with no shirt on and she had asked to take his picture. He agreed and immediately suggested a nude. The two entered his hotel room and Zoe noted that within 10 minutes the shoot was over. What’s amazing to me about this story is the man’s quick response. He obviously knew long before Zoe Strauss saw him exactly how he would like to be perceived in the world. To go back to Lukacs, it’s like in the non-epic world of late-capitalism we are all standing around waiting to be called into some meaningful action. Our needs are the same as Odysseus' but—at least in the case of the Las Vegas man’s self-understanding—no nymphs are waiting to rub us down with olive oil. The forms of social life we have made possible take no heed of those parts of our humanness. Zoe’s photos witness this perpetual waiting as a significant part of what it means to be fully human in this world, a kind of heroic resilience made meaningful through the act of presentation. The photos alongside one another become a communal order to which we all belong.