Rosalind Solomon on the NY Times Lens Blog

Catalin Valentine's Lamb, Ancash, Peru, 1981

© Rosalind Solomon 2010/Courtesy Bruce Silverstein

Lens, has kindly published a small feature I’ve written about Rosalind Solomon here.  David Dunlap brilliantly edits the piece, curbing my verbosity and making it much more concise.  However, I add the unedited version below, both for some sweet Solomon quotes, and also, for some explicable reason the NYT slideshow does not contain the photograph I cite in the first paragraph, so this is an excuse to post the image above.  However, you should still check out her work here or on the slideshow here.

HERE is the original text (I especially like the quote “I was 42, Cindy Sherman was 17”):

Rosalind Solomon may be one of the most interesting late twentieth century photographers still working of whom you’ve never heard.

Hers is a bold, humanistic and highly personal view of the world deftly executed in square format using black and white film. With images like, Catalín Valentine’s Lamb, Ancash, Peru, 1981, Solomon confronts our pre-existing ideas of motherhood. She challenges us with a subversion of the Madonna archetype that is simultaneously nurturing and for some, macabre. We glean as much about ourselves through our interpretation of the spectacle, and about the relationship of subsistence laborers to their livestock, in this case an orphaned lamb, and every reading is resonant with Solomon’s clear photographic timbre.

I first discovered her work on the blog, Too Much Chocolate, which featured 10 of her images.  One person commented on posting wrote, “Genius. How is it possible she’s so unknown? or have i been in a hole somewhere?”  Indeed.  This is exactly how I felt after looking at the images featured, all culled from Solomon’s monograph, Chapalingas (Steidl, 2003), which was published in conjunction with her retrospective at Photographische Sammlung in Cologne.

Chapalingas represents thirty years of Solomon’s images, dating from the 1970s and some dozen countries. The framework of the book (the title taken from the bastardized lexicon of a childhood song sung in Spanish) was conceived, formatted and sequenced by Solomon. The careful execution reflects the three years Ms. Solomon spent preparing the work with the help of multiple artist residencies at places like Yaddo and the Macdowell Colony.

Pulling haiku-like bits of prose from her journals to play off each sections heading, themes emerge: food, wheels, water, splits, seats, etc. And like her images, they are only categorized by this unifying aesthetic – an archetypical but enigmatic portrait of humanity and by extension of Solomon. The prose offer tantalizing clues into the turmoil running concurrently in her life even as she travels far away: to Peru and India with three trunks full of Hasselblads, Super 8s, and tape recorders.

Born in 1930 in Highland Park, Illinois to prosperous but distant parents, Rosalind Fox married a Chattanooga businessman at 24 and gratefully relocated to Chattanooga.  Soon a mother of two, Solomon volunteered in various roles for The Experiment in International Living, an exchange program, ultimately traveling to Japan, where she began making photographs that showed her it’s potential for her own work.  Solomon was 38 when she began making images and the ensuing decades marked a personal photographic odyssey exploring and discarding the person she had been whilst discovering the person she truly was through the making of her photographs, recordings, and the connections she made with people along the way.

She famously studied with Lisette Model during her husband’s business trips to New York, and it was Ms. Model who asserted Solomon as an artist with a right and need to claim time and space for her work. Solomon recalls Model’s advice to her in an interview on the blog 2.8 While Seated:

“The essence of what she said is: You are an artist. You must be selfish and not give too much time to others. Marriage is a problem for photographers because they need to be free. Your children are almost grown. Your civic work is done. Your husband needs to spend some time alone. You must have the freedom to create your pictures.”

Solomon focused on dolls as the subject of one of her first series. The dolls become a symbol for identities, hidden and masked, and show how Solomon simultaneously deconstructs her own experience through the examination of a subject outside of herself.  She acknowledges a debt to Diane Arbus, who “was very brave” and showed Solomon the virtues of the square format and use of strobe to capture moments which otherwise would be lost.  Both produced body of works that are humanistic and devoid of nostalgia and cliché.  But it is too reductive not to consider Solomon’s work within its own context.

Acknowledging Margaret Meade as an influence, Solomon pursues her subject with the focus of a global visual anthropologist.  Finding common threads, her images remain inscrutable even as they resonate, and thus are open to the viewer’s interpretation.  Some are wildly daring, and one wonders about this fearless fifty-year old woman vagabonding around Peru during its time of terrorism.  During these years Shining Path guerrillas based themselves in places like Ancash, where Solomon did a great deal of her work.

She told me recently, “When I flew away, I was on my own. And that was part of the lure.  I left behind my daily life and I landed wherever I landed.  The risks that I took led me into the most amazing experiences of my life and gave me freedom to photograph whatever attracted me.”

By 1986 she was divorced, basing herself outside of a loft across from Washington Square Park in New York and where she still resides.  She had had a solo show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship, supporting her work in Brazil and Peru.  Two more solo shows followed, Ritual, at MOMA, and Earthrites, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. Yet, during this time Solomon asserts, “Sunshine and lollipops it was not. I completely changed my life in my early fifties to live the life of an artist focused totally on my creative work. That was a wrenching time.”

“Early on, I had a hard time with people’s responses to my photographs.  I was in the audience when Alice Walker read her poems at the University of the South. She was a part-time editor at Ms Magazine then and I asked if I could show her some of my work. She looked at a box of my doll pictures and did not consider publishing a one. Instead she gasped and said, ‘These pictures remind me of the murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi.’

It was 1972. I was 42 and Cindy Sherman was 17. It took me a while to realize that Alice Walker’s gasp acknowledged the power of the pictures.”

Curator response to Solomon’s work at this time was also mixed.  While John Szarkowski, the legendary Director of Photography at MOMA, found her work intriguing, collecting and showing a few pieces, he encouraged her not to show her work too soon for fear of comparisons to Diane Arbus (Arbus had killed herself in 1971).  One notable magazine publisher told her that her work appeared to be taken by someone under the influence of drugs (it was the 1970s) and then proceeded to offer her a book project if she could offer up twenty five thousand dollars (begging the question, And who is under the influence of drugs?), and barring that, then a spread in the next publication.  Neither materialized.  “I am not a fundraiser,” Solomon said.

“How did negative responses inform my process? I gradually learned to treasure the power of my work and to value my own voice. I accept myself and realize that being an outsider is part of my strength. That’s why you have to ignore these things even when they hurt and stay on your path.”

Along the way she kept making photographs, some autobiographical films, and a few artist books: hand-made journals with pieces from the road incorporated into the process.  She’s even had two albums put out by Folkways, the Smithsonian Institution’s record label. The first, Corazon, was made in Peru, the second, Indian Love Rites, takes place in an ashram and on the streets of Kolkata during the festival season in 1983.

Today her work is held in over fifty collections, and while she has succeeded in her role as an artist, the institutional recognition that is part and parcel with major career retrospectives has thus far eluded her in the U.S.  But Rosalind Solomon is not sitting around waiting for it to happen.  She just finished a Junot Diaz novel, attended opening night of “The Oath” and then went back the next night for a repeat performance with Q & A.  This week she has a solo show opening at her New York gallery, Bruce Silverstein, and is part of another at MOMA. She writes to me:

“I am not a spring chicken, but Louise Bourgeois is my role model. I choose to continue my journey as an artist. It’s a good and productive life.”


Those in New York will have the opportunity to see more of Ms. Solomon’s work this month in two shows.  Her solo show, Rosalind Solomon: Rituals opens at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery Thursday, May 13th, accompanied by Saturday screenings of her film, “A Woman I Once Knew.”  Over at MOMA, four of her images are featured as part of an exhibit on new additions to the permanent collection and which opened on May 9.

A Woman I Once Knew (8 min film)

Directed by Rosalind Solomon

Screening at Bruce Silverstein / 20

Dates: May 15, 22, 29; June 5, 12, 19, 26

Bruce Silverstein Gallery

535 West 24th Street

New York, NY 10011

[P] 212-627-3930

Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography

May 7, 2010–March 21, 2011

The Museum of Modern Art

11 West 53 Street  New York, NY 10019

The Edward Steichen Photography Galleries, third floor

3 thoughts on “Rosalind Solomon on the NY Times Lens Blog

  1. Thank you for posting all of your article. You are a wonderful writer. And I’ve known about Rosalind most my photographic life, maybe because I am a Tennessean. She is an inspiration to me more now than ever.


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