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Strauss has seen the neighborhood around East Lake seesaw over the years. "It's gone from okay to bottoming out to coming back. A lot of that was dealing with the porn business. It was all those damn suburban idiots driving around propositioning pregnant ladies in the neighborhood. Why don't they have porn in the suburbs? Keep it there and leave us alone!
"Lake Street has a character," she continues. "It's just not a unified character. It's mostly working class, just folks doing what they need to get by. It's less plastic than the suburbs. It's a main street, in the real sense of the word. It's diverse--not just Taco Hell and McDonald's on the same street--but in the real sense."
Strauss first met Huie at a Somali job-development center where she then worked, and where the photographer had come to scout subjects. She invited him to shoot her family, and he obliged on two occasions: first for the bris of her youngest child and then for a Sukkoth celebration. She isn't sure how she'll react to seeing such private images on the street. "It's really removed from where we are right now. I know my kids are a little embarrassed. My son, who was only 11 at the time, is growing a mustache. He tells me, 'I wear a hat now so nobody's going to recognize me.' My daughter wears mostly black and a spiked collar so no one will recognize her.
"My main concern, though, is that those photos that reinforce stereotypes will get more attention from the media....It's interesting that Huie is dealing with black and white, because that's what Lake Street is: a strip of black asphalt with white curbs. The media's view is black and white. Minnesota's view is black and white. But black and white also has shades of gray, and the media doesn't catch that."
Strauss is, I think, pointing to a paradox of the modern American city. We live in peaceful and overwhelmingly prosperous times, after all, in neighborhoods with others like ourselves--citizens, who, though outwardly different, share our ambitions and anxieties. We recognize in these neighbors a set of common interests--in continued peace and prosperity--that we find comforting. We intuit an essential sameness: e pluribus unum. At the same time, at the periphery of our terra familiaris, we recognize cultural strata and substrata that we cannot penetrate. We occasionally intuit that our community--indeed, the whole idea of community--may be a convenient illusion covering a much more complex and confusing reality: e unibus pluram, from one reality come a multitude of perceptions. We live in an American city, which means navigating ever-shifting terrain.
Whatever Lake Street itself may represent, then, it does not stand still for long, and it is not necessarily reducible to the sum of its parts. As Huie often says, it would take 10,000 photos to faithfully map the human topography of this single street, and even then we would only see part of the story in them, for the people represented would have grown and the city would have changed.
Huie doesn't consider photos to be a pristine reflection of reality. He often paraphrases Winogrand on the matter: "I photograph not to find out what something looks like, but what something will look like photographed." Accordingly, he doesn't talk about exposing the invisible inhabitants of Lake Street. He thinks of the project, rather, as an enormous Borges-like fiction in which he, his subjects, and spectators will participate: a fleeting, sketched-in portrait of a transitory neighborhood, which, frozen in time and suspended in space, will soon become an unfinished history. It will testify, he says, only to what he saw and what we see in it.
Like most of us, Huie is uneasy with the extent to which the printed image has been appropriated and adulterated by advertising. That, he says, is why it's so important to install his photos on the street; put them in a museum and they would be subsumed in a rhetorical framework, shuffled away and reductively explained as "fine art." Install a collection of photographs in situ, and they will take on the patina of advertising, a power based on scale and saturation and monopoly of our attention.
Douglas Fogle, an assistant curator at Walker Art Center who coordinated an exhibit of Huie's Lake Street photos in 1999, considers the project's street-installation an ambivalent comment on the tyranny of advertising along Lake Street (which, it hardly needs to be said, is largely intent on hawking the more pernicious commodities of late-stage capitalism). "The photos are worthy of a museum context," Fogle says. "But the fact that Huie wants to operate in all these venues makes it something entirely different. It breaks those boundaries you have in a museum, because of the experience of confronting the images on the street."
Unlike the work of most navel-gazing fine-arts photographers today--concerned with self-exploration, abstraction of form, etc.--the Lake Street project embraces the cold-eyed humanism of photojournalism. It is, says Fogle, a distinctly democratic approach: art of the people and decidedly for the people. And it exists (though Huie would probably not say so) at the nexus where art shades into politics and politics into morality.
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