The Statue of Liberty obscured by scaffolding. A woman reclining comfortably on a couch, unaware of the boa constrictor uncoiling itself on the floor. A cherubic, blond-haired boy dressed in Quaker clothing looking straight at the camera, his blank expression conveying a wisdom beyond his years.
Rosalind Fox Solomon, whose photographs are currently on view as part of the exhibition Greater New York at MoMA PS1, packs emotion and mystery into her images. Her subjects are more quotidian than Diane Arbus’s, but the pictures achieve the same unnerving vibe. Though her photos appear staged or posed, according to her the scenes are “just encountered.” Solomon’s photographs mine the surreal embedded in the ordinary; what makes them remarkable is that she captured these liminal instances.
Now in her eighties, Solomon is having a busy start to her year. In addition to Greater New York, her work can currently be seen in This Place, a group exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, and in Got to Go, a solo show at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in Manhattan.I met with Solomon at her apartment in the East Village in early February. There were several large printouts of her photographs taped to the walls. She assured me they were only there to help her edit an upcoming book.
I showed Solomon iPhone photos that I took of her work in Greater New York, hoping she could give me some background on her photographs. How did these curious images come to be?
“There’s no background,” she told me. “I saw it. That’s all.”
Solomon apologized, feeling unable to give me more detailed answers. I countered with an apology of my own. After all, what should I have expected? You can’t blame a magician for not wanting to give away their secrets. Besides, I realized my query was moot: even if you know how the lady in the box is sawed in half, or the circumstances that lead to a photograph, the explanation doesn’t diminish the wonder produced by the feat.
She did share that she rarely asks her subjects permission to photograph them. “Well, they usually see me. I mean, I’m not that hidden,” she joked, before adding: “If I ask, I would never be able to get their picture. I just do it. At one point, I just decided that it was my work to do this. I needed to do it. And I just do it.”
Solomon did not start taking pictures until 1968, when she was in her mid-thirties and working for an international exchange program. She went to live with a family in Japan who spoke limited English. Not fluent in Japanese herself, Solomon brought an instamatic camera with her and began “sort of talking to myself through my camera” which gave her “this feeling of connection.”
She soon realized that photography wasn’t merely a hobby. “I had a tremendous need to express myself. And once I started expressing myself, I felt a lot better,” she says. “I was an artist, but it took me a long time to be able to say that because I was 38 when I started, and I didn’t know what I was.”
After her breakthrough in Japan, Solomon returned to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she was married. A friend who owned a pottery studio allowed her to photograph one of his classes; the resulting photos became her first show. Just don’t expect to see these pictures any time soon. “They were horrible,” Solomon admits.
Steadily, the artist found her voice. In 1979 she received a Guggenheim fellowship and moved to New York. In 1986, she had an exhibition at MoMA—Rosalind Solomon: Ritual—of photographs she took in Latin America and India.
The next year, Solomon read an article in The New York Times about the then-burgeoning AIDS crisis. While she initially didn’t know anyone with the illness, she began a photo project of people living with AIDS, becoming friends with some of her subjects in the process. Moved by the human vulnerability she witnessed, Solomon felt compelled to do a series of nude self-portraits.
This need to abandon her comfort zone is still with her. A few years ago, she grew annoyed at being told by other people that they couldn’t hear what she was saying. She describes it as “a feeling of just being looked through. It happens when you get older. People kind of treat you as if you’re invisible.” This prompted her to take voice lessons, which led to her creating an experimental video, and then a live performance incorporating her photographs and original text.
At the moment, Solomon is putting together the details for her solo show, including troubleshooting the projections. “I’ve just hardly seen anyone for months,” she says, so she’s looking forward to the opening, which her family is attending.
As for the next challenge? “I don’t have any idea. But I have to do something. It’s my life, you know? I have to.”
Greater New York will be on view MoMA PS1 through March 7, 2016.
Rosalind Fox Solomon: Got to Go will be on view at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery through April 16, 2016.
This Place will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum through June 5, 2016.