Freeze Frame: Still Shots in Life and Death

Late one cold spring morning, I stroll down a hallway corridor and into Angela Strassheim's studio for our first visit. Directly behind her, as I enter, five hearts stare back at me. Not pink or red "Happy Valentine's Day" hearts, but organs, removed from the body and photographed against black velvet. They are beautiful, printed to scale and, according to Strassheim, have never been exhibited.

As I inquire about the organs, I learn they are not related, at least not in a familial fashion. One is an infant's healthy heart. A second is that of a teenager, overdosed on drugs. Followed by a third, pierced by a gunshot. Another is a fatty and oversized adult heart. And yet another still is the heart of a person deceased from cancer. But together, aligned neatly in a row, like a toddler's doodle of approximately similar stick figures, they have a natural kinship.

To me they resemble a family portrait.

Mortality, it seems, has a way of doing that, assembling us, gathering us, showcasing our domesticity. And as Strassheim walks me through her work I come to understand her adept skill in capturing the anatomy of our generations' domestic paradigm.

Anchored in "Left Behind," a previous body of work depicting restaged memories from her upbringing in a devout Christian family, Strassheim tells me about a newer series she calls Pause. She shows me Savannah at the Window, a young girl photographed from behind as she looks out the window perched on a chair, reminding me of Manet's "The Railway." Yet I imagine that in this case, the girl's mother it outside, rather than by her side. "In Father and Son" Strassheim places us inside a mirror opposite a father who stands behind his son, obviously fashioning him in his own image. Affecting a direct internal confrontation within her audience by positioning us inside the subjects' reflection, we are forced to consider whether we too, groom our youth into miniature versions of ourselves.

"In Removing Makeup," Strassheim has restaged a scene, which actually harks back to her days as a teenager. Her father has dragged her into the bathroom and stands behind her, prior to a date, dispensing orders to wash off any trace of makeup. She knows her date can see her through the bathroom window from the driveway and she is embarrassed. I think about how taken from the back seat of the car, the boy in the driver's seat -- her date -- is actually looking back at her now -- Strassheim, the adult, grown up photographer. As she speaks, I enter into the image -- I become the subject of the photograph -- looking into the eyes of the driver as he looks back at me from the rearview mirror and I become her and myself in all those moments of shame witnessed by others. I am the photographer in the back seat and I am the girl in the bathroom as well. Strassheim has effectively crossed a barrier, creating a self-portrait that quietly brings us to leave our safe stance outside the frame and share the scene with its subjects.

At this stage of our visit, it is already clear that Strassheim's work sits in stark contrast to the hyper-stylized photography of our era, which frequently, forcefully submits us, obeisance-like, to lose ourselves in the glorified celebrity of the other. It's almost as if photographers, in their new guise as court portraitists du jour, are beholden to the rules of old. Costumes [sponsored by haute couture] are de riguer. Poses convey baroque affectations that assume connotations of sub-culture in lieu of status. The results are artifacts resembling nothing of our day to day.

But Strassheim's work sets her apart. It is universal. She is not a court portraitist, but a scribe recording the everyday, commoner's reality, like a contemporary Brueghel or Daumier, without submitting to caricature or the hyperbole for comic relief.

Her still lifes "Strawberries" and "Black Bananas" are beautiful in their mundane, un-staged familiarity. A lovely compliment to the social critique of "Pause" or "Left Behind," these honest portraits of domestic objects, are records of microcosmic lifespans -- documenting the relationships between ripe and decomposing produce as if they were family members of different ages and experience.

Even her series on domestic homicides, entitled "Evidence," depicts a sort of family portrait -- the sort its subjects' would never willingly sit for, not today, in yesteryear, or ever. For "Evidence," Strassheim traveled to scenes of domestic violence years after crimes occurred and used a technique she learned from her time as a forensic photographer to capture portraits of murderous marks with her lens. Strassheim tells me that the bloodstains, although no longer visible, never disappear. At times the location of the crime remained vacant, while other times, it was re-inhabited, sometimes by unwitting occupants pitied by their more knowledgeable neighbors (and requiring creativity from Strassheim to photograph their domiciles). Yet the imprints of the events remained embedded, their story -- so to speak -- written on the wall. To me these photographs are the flipside to Strassheim's still life images of fruit. They are still deaths.

As our time draws to a close, Strassheim shares her most recent work -- photographs taken in Israel. Strassheim, now converted to Judaism and married into the tradition, has embarked on a new voyage, snapping photographs, portraits of a society, a new extended family, to which she has chosen to belong. These new photographs walk a delicate path of self-discovery, impressions of an identity evolving, like all our own, and remind me of the origin of the portrait itself in the ancient legends of Butades and Narcissus. Betraying a yearning for the other (Butades) or a yearning for oneself (Narcissus), it's telling that many of Strassheim's images freeze moments of childhood or adolescence, that ever so volatile age, identity pre-or mid-definition, vibrant with life and potential. Perhaps it is this sensation that makes Strassheim's work so poignant, as she revisits humanity's collective yearning for youth, depicting desire itself so transparently.

Freeze Frame: Still shots in life and death

Angela Strassheim's work is being exhibited in "The Kids Are All Right", June 1 - August 18 at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, NC. She is represented by Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York City.