Gross Anatomy

Angela Strassheim’s photography peers beneath the surface of American Life

As an undergraduate at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) in the early 1990s, Angela Strassheim collected salmon skins from fine-dining restaurants, made dresses out of animal byproducts, and raised cockroaches and other insects as a hobby. “I’d have butterflies hatching all over my apartment,” she recalls, shaking her head. Her art was no less unusual or gruesome—her video of a cow being dehorned actually drove a fellow student from the classroom. “I didn’t want to turn other people off,” she says, “but I did.”

The same aesthetic that caused her classmate to flee is now drawing crowds to her art: this year, Strassheim’s eerily quiet photographs of her family were chosen for inclusion at the prestigious Whitney Biennial exhibition in New York and are featured through December 10 in a solo show at Grinnell College in Iowa.

After graduating from MCAD, where she now teaches, Strassheim trained to become a forensic photographer and worked for a crime lab in Virginia, spending long days in the dark examining photographic evidence from crime scenes. Yet, the better she was at her job, the more she missed making art. And so, after reading the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, about the reasons art doesn’t get made (sample quote: “If you chase two rabbits, you catch neither”), she turned down an enviable job with a crime lab in Los Angeles and moved to New York.

Untitled (Makayla) From “Pause”
Series © 2006 Angela Strassheim

Later, having entered the master of fine arts program at Yale University, Strassheim began the photographic work that would form her first show, “Left Behind.” She journeyed back to her native Midwest to take carefully staged photographs of her evangelical family. “Family is where everything begins, inside, behind closed doors,” she explains. The photos from this series are deceptively banal—a father solemnly parting a son’s hair, a grandmother lying in a casket. But in their quietude and sense of voyeurism, these photos bear a striking relationship to her forensic work. “My pictures have a sense of coldness, a sense of observing,” she says. “I’m always taking a step back.”

For an observer, however, Strassheim is remarkably hands-on. She meticulously stages each photograph, making preliminary sketches, scouting locations, and sometimes re-shooting scenes three times. In her northeast Minneapolis studio, she points to a photo from her current collection of work, “Pause.” A young girl in a white swimsuit stands in a wading pool in front of a clothesline. “I chose the swimsuit. I installed the clothesline. I hung the sheets,” she says. “I had that image in my mind for about a year and a half before I made the photograph.” Regarding an eerily striking photo of a girl’s birthday party, she says, “I threw the party for her; I even decided which girls could be invited.”

Though her new artistic angle is an examination of girlhood, Strassheim’s forensic past is not far behind her. Before moving back to Minneapolis to teach at her alma mater, she worked with the dead once again, photographing bodies at New York morgues as soon as they arrived. She also published some photos of re-created drug deals gone bad, autopsy equipment, and other grisly subjects. How did she become so fascinated by the macabre? “I was raised to believe I was going to hell,” she says. Working at the morgue—seeing bodies up close, the human form transfigured in every possible way—erased her fear of death. “It helped me confront my own ideas of heaven and hell.” Strassheim even traces her interest in photography to her feelings about death. “Being an observer—it comes from being afraid of dying,” she says.

“Everything I’ve ever done has been as an observer.”

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