Religion and death have always been at the center of Angela Strassheim's life. The Minnetonka girl grew up in a conservative Christian household where the End Times were as close as the next blink, and the fear of it clung to her like an appendage. Such a constant connection to perfection, fear, and death could be what propelled the 36-year-old Strassheim into photography, an art form that requires its practitioners to grapple with uncontrollable environments. Can one, for example, control the sun? Or at least the way it appears?
Strassheim attended MCAD (where she now teaches) and later received her MFA in photography from Yale. For 10 years, Strassheim worked in forensic photography, shooting the dead in Florida and New York City during 9/11. Her "Left Behind" series appeared at last year's Whitney Biennial, where she garnered a name for herself alongside Alec Soth, another Minnesota-made photographer from the previous Whitney cycle.
The "Left Behind" images are meticulous, surreal, and often magical. In one picture, Strassheim's brother and nephew stare dead-eyed into the camera, which functions as a mirror for their before-church grooming. In another, her dead, pink-clad grandmother lies cross-armed under a radiant light, her pink-lined coffin enveloping her. In some ways, Strassheim has traded one obsessive doctrine for another: Everything in her series is punctiliously controlled, precisely lit, and arranged by her own hands. She shoots as many as 30 sheets to create a single, usable image.
One picture features a young girl who looks as though she's wearing the skeletal remains of angel wings. Strassheim, however, says the pieces are more about life than death. Less about her disdain for religion than about being reborn.
City Pages: What do you think the dramatic "Left Behind" images say about you and your attitude toward death?
Angela Strassheim: For me, they're kind of an introduction into my world. Right now, it's very white American. It's still very insular. It's still safe. I see it as an introduction. The forensic stuff, people talk about a lot. And it's not really that evident in any of these pictures. This is all speculative, but I think that people look at them and try to imagine how death affects a person.
CP: If you don't see a connection to death in the images, why do you think it was so evident to others?
Strassheim: I think it's part of the culture. People learn about what death is through television. And it's so not like television. It's kind of become this trendy thing. I get emails all the time from people who want to re-create crime scenes. And I'm, like, "What? You don't know anything about this." You're coming in, "Oh, it's cool." And I find that kind of annoying. I used to be one of those people, too—back in college in the early '90s. But I spent 10 years of my life dealing with death for my job. And people don't really understand it.
CP: You say it's not like television. So what was the job of a forensic photographer like for you?
Strassheim: I loved it. It was a great job. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. But it can really take a toll on you. And how much negative energy do you want to live with? But it's nothing like on TV. I just don't like TV. I never had one growing up. I don't even understand any part of the television culture. I've seen CSI and those shows maybe twice. I can't watch it, though. Being in front of the television is the only time I feel myself depressed.
CP: If it's not a perception of death that the images portray, what do you think the pictures reveal about family?
Strassheim: I don't think they reveal anything. They're all play-acting for me. A lot of it comes from memories. But it doesn't reveal anything about family, I don't think. My family has been photographed by me for years. And they're all very supportive of what I do. They've been very supportive of the images. Yes, they're still practicing [Christians]. But they've all been very supportive of what I do.
CP: So what about your images makes them specific to your viewpoint or style?
Strassheim: Every little aspect of the picture is controlled and important. The place is as specific as the person as what's worn as what they're doing. They're all staged. Everything is framed very specifically. That's very much how I photograph.
CP: "Left Behind" as a phrase or concept obviously has more meaning to you than just the popular series of books. What else does it mean to you?
Strassheim: At the time of Rapture, all the born-again Christians will go to heaven, and everyone else gets left behind. It's been the underlying thing my whole life, because I'm not a Christian. I did it for 18 years. I don't want anything to do with it. I don't feel it. I can't be preached to anymore. For me, it's about being comfortable with who I am. But it's also about surviving death. The people that choose not to commit suicide. The people who carry on. The people who chose to live. It is a celebration of living, and all those moments of significance. So it does have a duality of meaning.