As we prepare for the opening of a new MoMA in October, we invited artists Rosalind Fox Solomon and Sara Cwynar to capture this exciting moment in the Museum’s history through their unique perspectives. For the past 50 years, Solomon has traveled the world connecting to her subjects through medium-format photo portraits—some of which are in MoMA’s collection and were featured in the 2010–11 exhibition Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography.
Cwynar’s art takes a different approach to photography. Building composite photographs and videos of found objects, she explores how design and popular images affect our psyches and infiltrate our consciousness. Both Solomon’s and Cwynar’s work recently appeared in MoMA PS1’s 2015–16 Greater New York exhibition.
Ahead of the launch of their commissions, the two met to discuss their creative process and how they captured key moments and stories in the collection and behind the scenes.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity. Photographs by Rose Liu
Rosalind Fox Solomon: I want to start by hearing about what you’ve been doing [for this MoMA commission].
Sara Cwynar: Well, I started thinking about the history of MoMA and how it teaches us what we think our history is, or who we think we are, through canonical art objects like the Water Lilies and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon that we’ve seen over and over again. I wanted to think about what those objects say about Western history and ideas about a public-shared history through art objects. Does that make sense?
RFS: Yes. I looked at some of the material online about you, and I noticed that you’re very knowledgeable about art history.
SC: I’m not an art historian, by any means, but I’m interested in how images communicate things that aren’t immediately apparent in them. Something that seems really familiar and benign, like a painting of flowers, actually has so much politics in it. I’ve been trying to pull those things apart. For example, I filmed a Picasso painting with a macro lens, so you can see all of the little details and fresh strokes. You can really see his hand in a way that you normally can’t, and it makes you think about how someone actually made it as opposed to the kind of cultish figure that Picasso has become. I’ve been finding different ways of thinking about parts of the works that you might not see just by looking. It’s been a really crazy education. I wouldn’t say I knew that much about modern art history, but now I know so much about it—at least what’s in MoMA’s collection.
RFS: Our work is so totally different.
SC: Yeah, which is cool.
RFS: At MoMA, I have been focusing on photographing those who are unseen, or behind the scenes. Especially exciting was photographing the conservators working on a Picasso, a Chagall, and a Rodin.
SC: And then what’s next? Are you photographing any visitors?
RFS: I hope to do that when the museum reopens!
SC It’s so hard to me to photograph real people, even in my studio where I have control over everything. What you do seems very difficult.
RSF: It’s interesting, too. Sometimes I’m a little bit apprehensive before I start. It’s as if I'm starting from zero and wondering, “Am I going to be able to do it today? Is anything going to come out of this?” And something always does.
SC: Are you photographing in a square format for Instagram?
RFS: In 1976, I began photographing in a square format. For me, what is inside the frame is what makes the picture, and the format is incidental. Instagram has never been part of my practice.
SC: Right. Is it a Hasselblad?
RFS: It is.
SC: I have one that I never use, but this could be a good opportunity.
RFS: Did you go to art school in Vancouver?
SC: No. I went to the University of British Columbia for English literature for one year, and then I dropped out of school and worked in the mall. I didn’t go back for a long time, but then I went to graphic design school in Toronto. After a while working as a graphic designer, I went to Yale for photography.
RFS: That’s so fantastic.
SC: Yeah. But Yale wasn’t even really a formal photography education, so I still kind of taught myself how to take pictures in a random way.
RFS: Obviously, you’ve done very well with them.
SC: Thanks! What about you? Did you go to school?
RFS: I didn’t have any formal education in photography. I studied intermittently with Lisette Model. Otherwise, I am self-taught.
SC: Oh, wow. That’s amazing. You’ve been using a Hasselblad the whole time?
RFS: Since 1976. I still have my original Hasselblad body.
SC: Have you ever tried a digital Hasselblad?
RFS: I’ve tried digital a few times—not Hasselblad—but I just haven’t liked it. It’s such a different language. Do you use film all the time?
SC: Yeah, because I build things. This is why I can’t take the camera down because I build things on the floor, and then have the camera shooting down. It’s exactly where it needs to be, and then I’ll take five pictures at the end. I shoot on 4×5 or 8×10. I can afford to do that because I don’t take very many pictures. But otherwise it would be so expensive.
RFS: What you do seems very complex.
SC: It is in a sense. I want to start using my Hasselblad again. You’ve inspired me.
RFS: In terms of technology, there was a period when I figured there was no point in continuing to photograph. I just thought everybody is a photographer.
SC: Yeah. But, I mean, there’s such a difference between taking an iPhone photo, and then, the beautiful photos that you take, but you didn’t feel that way?
RFS: I don’t know. Maybe it was a lot of things. Maybe I just thought I’d done enough.
SC: I never had a feeling that there was no point in photographing anymore. I just thought, How can photographs change to make sense in that context? I think it’s more apparent with video. Everything that is made now as a short video can be captioned. Some people won’t listen, they’ll only read. Things are made to fit the square and things are made in this shorter, edited, more condensed way and we’re just used to absorbing information that way.
I think it’s interesting to make things that way, too. I’m excited about pointing to some of the ways that photography has changed for the capitalist platform of Instagram, and how it makes us want more attention and recognition, but also creates great anxiety—what that means and thinking about that in a history of art. I think it’s also interesting getting art out of the kind of privileged space of the museum and how Instagram can be this much more democratic place to see things, but you also can’t really see anything because it’s so small.
RFS: Has your process taught you anything about MoMA that you weren’t expecting? There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on; so much activity and so many different kinds of people who are involved.
SC: Yeah, it’s amazing how much needs to happen just to show pieces of art and to talk about them and preserve them. What draws you to portraiture specifically?
RFS: I have done a lot of other things, but I’m interested in the psychology of people. I use my intuition to try to understand something about what their lives may be. I’m interested in the reality of other people’s lives.
SC: Do you think the camera is a helpful thing for meeting people and going places?
RFS: Absolutely. You can move out of your comfort zone. Even though I was photographing people in remote places, so much was connected to my personal life. That connection is an ongoing thread.
SC: Oh yeah. I try to avoid that, too, though you know, of course it is.
RFS: But in recent years, my books have become extremely personal, especially Got to Go. I chose pictures from all parts of my work to make the book and I included my own texts and poems.
SC: I would love to see that. How do you know when you’re done with something?
RFS: I know that I’m finished when there is rhythm and meaning in the text and images.
SC: I don’t know if I’m ever really done with anything. Things come back. For example, thinking about photographing here, I’ve made maybe five or six things that I didn’t want dissolved. When I make an individual thing, I just decide it’s finished when there’s no part of it that bothers me, which takes a long time. I would like to think my work has gotten more complex, but I may not be the best judge of that. I’m making a lot of videos for this project, and video has been really exciting in terms of learning a new technology and finding new ways to feel excited about making. So much of making art is just figuring things out. I continue to try to find new things that I haven’t figured out yet, and video is really exciting on those terms.
RFS: What is your studio like?
SC: Mine is crazy...massive amounts of objects and things and tools.
RFS: Like you would imagine an artist’s studio. Mine is pretty organized.
SC: I’m so jealous of you.
RFS: You know, I started early organizing my negatives so that I have access to them. In the last few years, I put up a lot of my work, so my studio is much more alive now than it used to be. Everything used to be more or less in boxes. I have a lot of pictures on the wall, and I have my digital center, and my printer. My darkroom turned into a storage space once I closed the door.
SC: The way of all darkrooms. I’m sure you must have so many negatives.
RFS: I do have many negatives, and I am creating more!