Philadelphia Story: the Billboard Project

 “La Corona,” Billboard 1, Philadelphia, PA.
                 Location: Passyunck Avenue and Reed Street, Philadelphia, PA.

Photos of oceans, flooded plains, and portraits have replaced advertisements on fifty-four billboards across Philadelphia. Known collectively as the Billboards Project, it is part of a retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called Zoe Strauss: Ten Years. Strauss, a Philadelphia native and self-taught photographer, frequently relies on her home town as a source of material, but she doesn’t consider herself a documentarian or a street artist. Rather, she seeks to capture the humanity in day-to-day life and uses exhibition as a means for exploring social boundaries.

Top image: “Woman laughing in Indiana,” Billboard 50+51, Central Indiana.
                 Location: Ridge Avenue and 10th Street, Philadelphia, PA.
Lower Image: “Captain Buddy and Captain Kurt,” Billboard 48, Venice, Los Angeles, CA, and “Driving to Grand Isle_6472,” Billboard 49.
                 Location: Spring Garden and 9th Street, Philadelphia, PA.

For Strauss, how her work is displayed is as central to her message as the subject matter. She started turning away from gallery spaces and white walls in the mid-1990s. Under an elevated stretch of Interstate 95 in South Philadelphia, she started to display and sell her work inexpensively. Strauss didn’t intend to transform the city into a gallery so much as to ward off the pretention associated with traditional means of art exhibition and instead make the photography accessible. Her subject matter was local and included people going about their lives: at a parade on Broad Street or standing outside a store. She often let her subjects choose their own pose and introduce themselves to the public as they wished to be seen. Beyond her closely cropped portraits or highly organized compositions, the juxtapositions, close-ups, and candor in her work as a whole engender critical thought and a desire for social change.

Similarly, the Billboard Project brings art to unlikely sites, but the scope of her subject matter has crossed city boundaries. Structured loosely on Homer’s Odyssey, the Project includes photos taken in Philadelphia and on travels across the country. While broad themes of journey and homecoming guided the project, each billboard is open for interpretation individually as well. Many of the billboards are sited so far apart, one wouldn’t see them all in a casual stroll. The siting of each photo is informed by contextual clues—some have a story and others are more abstract. Cannily, one billboard is a photo of the Pacific Ocean orienting the viewer west and bridging more than three thousand miles. Another is a portrait of a familiar neighborhood personality surveying a busy intersection that she observes from her stoop—and the billboard is in her neighborhood. Even when faces are ten feet tall, the scale of the photos isn’t confrontational. Instead, their size drives home Strauss’s unfussy call for human regard and dignity.

Get to know your neighbors and explore the city landscape—tour the Billboards Project. Check out the project website and Philadelphia Museum exhibition page on Zoe Strauss and her work.

Amelia Magida is a landscape designer living, researching, working, and playing in Philadelphia. She holds a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and Bachelor of Architecture from the Pratt Institute. She is weeks away to becoming a licensed landscape architect and applies her many talents at OLIN.

All photos by Amelia Magida. 

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