Born in Liberty, New York, Zoe Leonard grew up in New York City. At the age of fifteen, she dropped out of school and taught herself how to take photographs with her mother’s camera. Her early images often reflect her peripatetic life travelling across the country, working at odd jobs, and encountering various landscapes. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Leonard continued to photograph urban scenes in cities such as Paris and Washington, D.C.; she also captured Niagara Falls and anonymous suburban housing developments. In addition, she began taking photographs concerning the representation of women. In one series, she shot catwalk models from a low angle, revealing their underwear; in others, she depicted anatomical models, wigs, chastity belts, and female dolls, alongside the bell jars, receptacles, and vitrines used to display them in medical, natural history, and art museums.
Beginning in the late 1980s, Leonard worked with Act Up and other artist collectives engaged in activist projects on behalf of HIV/AIDS and gay rights, including Gang and Fierce Pussy. After the 1992 death of her close friend and fellow artist David Wojnarowicz from complications of AIDS, Leonard mounted an exhibition entitled Strange Fruit (For David) (1995), in which she sewed together the skins of 295 pieces of discarded fruit and decorated them with wire, buttons, and thread. In 1995, Leonard travelled to Alaska, where she spent two years in solitude, and to which she has returned repeatedly. From these experiences, she produced works about endurance and survival, like Tree and Fence, Out My Back Window (1998), shot in New York, which shows a tree, bisected by a fence and strewn with litter, growing despite such unlikely circumstances. Leonard undertook an ambitious project that came to be known as Analogue (1998-2007) that she completed with a Rolleiflex camera. Comprising approximately 400 images taken in New York and places that she visited in Europe and Africa, Analogue documents the disappearance of local markets and individual businesses as the result of an expanding global economy. Leonard presented the project both in a book format, pared down to ninety-two images, and as a museum display, in which the New York pictures are paired with images of storefronts from around the world in a grid format. Leonard’s more recent projects involve found photographs and postcards and a series of camera obscura installations that examine the processes of producing and looking at images.