Thursday, July 14, 2016

Q & A with Rosalind Fox Solomon

Photo by Caleb Bryant Miller
Rosalind Fox Solomon is a photographer based in New York City and the author of the recent monographs Got To Go and THEM

Blake Andrews: The text in Got to Go touches on childhood memories and parent/kid dynamics. I’m curious what your childhood in Highland Park was like.

Rosalind Fox Solomon: My childhood in Highland Park was difficult. White gloves, white teeth. Smiling was important. Maybe my second childhood will be easier. There were two levels of life for me in Highland Park: uptown where my mother played majhong with her lady friends, and the rural area on “the other side of the tracks”, several miles away from the center of town where we lived and I attended grammar school. Our home was a castle compared to all of the others in the neighborhood. It was plunked on some acreage, set back from the road, completely out of context with the neighbors’ modest houses. My sister and I were the only Jewish children in the rural school. It was after the crash. Hitler was on the rise. 

My grandfather, Nathan Fox, a Russian immigrant, established a wholesale tobacco and candy business. My father commuted from Highland Park to the West Side of Chicago where he and his siblings worked in the business which they inherited.

My other grandfather, Lester R. Wellman, designed our dining room chandelier. He was an isolated and unrecognized artist, who painted watercolors. Born in Louisville, he and my grandmother moved to Chicago where he established a small business, a sales outlet for the beautiful lighting fixtures which he designed. He lost everything in The Great Depression. Then, he fell into a depression that lasted for the rest of his life. He and my grandmother were incompatible. She taught contract bridge and worked as she said, “to help the less fortunate.” My grandfather loved music and  did not interact socially. My grandmother wanted a divorce, but when my mother and my uncle begged her not to leave their daddy alone, she conceded accepting her unhappy life. Though the Wellmans were my mother’s parents, my father supported them. 

You came to photography relatively late in life. Before that, were you aware of it at all? Did you look at any art photos or know people who did or who made them?

I was not aware of photography. I never saw any art photos; I did not know people who made them or people who talked about them. I did not know any artist —photographer or painter— except my grandfather, but I knew the work of artists because my mother took me to the Chicago Art Institute, to the ballet, musicals, opera and to the Chicago Symphony. In childhood I knew Carmen, Gilbert and Sullivan, Renoir, Swan Lake, Beethoven, Oklahoma and South Pacific.

From grammar school days through my college years, I attended performances at the Ravinia Festival. We sat under the stars and listened to Schubert, Mozart and so many others. The Chicago Symphony was conducted by the world’s greatest conductors and internationally known guest artists appeared there. My aunt Barbara, had two pianos. She regularly entertained guest artists after the concerts and played duets with them. Among those I met at her soirées were Leonard Bernstein and Leon Fleisher. Leon and I were serious for a while, but his mother put an end to our relationship. She did not want him to be distracted from his budding career as a concert pianist.

Israel, 2011, from THEM

I began photography when I was 38, living in Chattanooga, Tennessee with my husband and two children. I was friendly with the chief photographer at the Chattanooga Times. One afternoon, he helped me to set up a darkroom in what had been my garden shed.

I stayed for two weeks with a Japanese family that spoke no English. I did not speak any Japanese. I began “talking to myself” with an Instamatic camera. Though my work was focused on international exchange at the time, I quickly became attached to the camera. I returned to Tennessee and never stopped taking pictures.

How did you initially connect with Lisette Model?

I went to a holiday party at a big photo lab in New York that had made several six-foot prints for me. At that time, five years of work seemed like a lot and I wondered what I should do with all of my pictures. I met an agent at the party. I need an agent! I told her. I didn’t realize that I was still an infant artist. I was put in contact with Henrietta Brackman, a photographers’ consultant. She looked through a suitcase full of my work and said, “You’re talented, but you’ve a lot to learn.” She said that Lisette Model could help me.

What was your first impression of Model?

…that she was a sage and that every word she uttered was a gem. She was physically small but had a huge presence.

I am sick of bearing the cross of Arbus on my back and being tucked away in a basket with her remains. She was an early influence and I have had many others.

I came out of an era when artists were not expected to articulate their intentions. I finally woke up to the fact that I was living in another age. I had to do what kids in art school are required to do: they have to talk about their work with intelligence and logic.

Israel, 2011, from THEM

I began to discover myself as an artist at age 38. My influences beyond photography are broad and diverse. They include literature, painting, music, theater, poetry and film. They have deepened over the years.  Some of the individuals who inspire me are Samuel Beckett, Ingmar Bergmann, Buñuel, Julia Margaret Cameron, Ann Carson, James Joyce, Fellini, Goya, Hogarth, Bacon, Sam Shepherd, Tennessee Williams, Margaret Mead, Bertolt Brecht and Alice Neel.

During the past 20 years, I have used photography, texts, sound, my voice, and the moving image and installation in my practice. I have worked consistently on underlying themes that  relate to gender, psychology, ethnic violence, and the rituals of religion and culture. These themes emerged from my own life experiences.

 Do you think your portraits flatter your subjects? Are they kind?

 Of course, flattery is not my intention. Look at my influences. Think of Beckett.

Mother, Daughter and Maid, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1988, from Chapalingas

Is your subjects' reaction to the photographs important to you?

No. As I work, what is in my mind has nothing to do with how an audience will respond to my vision. Individuals have different responses depending upon perception.

Photography as such does not interest me. It is only a tool as the paintbrush is the painter’s tool. I am interested in the layers within us as individuals related to our time.

I cut off from the known and make myself vulnerable. My self image as an outsider takes me away from my comfort zones. I put myself into situations where I need to gain acceptance as a person and an artist. This has continued throughout my projects i.e. the series First Mondays in Scottsboro: portraits of people with AIDS, ritual, and Polish Shadow.

If photography does not interest you, what does?

What interests me are the dichotomies and the metaphors. Push–pull. Positive-negative. 

Got To Go, 2016, Mack Books

What was the source material for the texts in Got To Go?

I used a random format in the texts. Actually, the design of the texts is intrinsic to Got to Go and its inner voices. I wrote all of the texts with the exception of extracts from songs. Many come from a cacophony of remembered voices of the child and the parent. There are also a few of my poems.

The original idea behind the texts was to excavate parts of my childhood. The texts provided a framework for the selection of related pictures. My experiences in taking the pictures took me far beyond the personal. 

So you created the text before you'd chosen the photographs?


The title Got to Go is excerpted from one of those texts. What is the significance of that title and why did you choose it?

I chose it because it came out of my mouth as a child and within the book the phrase has multiple relevant meanings. 

Parts of Got to Go are drawn from my mother’s sayings and my father’s behavior; also from my confusions and fears as a child. They remain in my gut, relating to all aspects of my life.

Got to Go is published by Mack. How did you get connected with Mack, and do you have other books planned with that publisher?

Michael Mack worked with Steidl and was involved with Chapalingas (2003). We knew of one another then. Mack published my monograph, THEM (2014)He also published books for most of the other the photographers participating in This Place (2014). We communicate well and I look forward to my next project with him. 

Among the themes in Got to Go are dolls and amputees. Why are you drawn to these subjects?

 I was drawn to the “leper colony”, Agua de Dios, after I read a front page article in the New York Times in 1987. The Times reported on the fact that some experts had declared that people with HIV should be isolated. They should be moved away to protect the general society. People with leprosy had been isolated since the Middle Ages. At that time, the public thought that a person could catch AIDS in the way that you could catch the flu. 

My trip to Agua de Dios, Colombia, was a prelude to Portraits in the Time of AIDS. I stayed in Teresa’s home. She had Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) and walked with artificial legs. Colombia banished individuals with the disease to Agua de Dios. The town was abandoned when scientists convinced the Colombian government that Hansen’s Disease was not easily transmitted. 

Dolls in various manifestations appear in Got to Go.  In all cases they reference little girls or women. Dolls also are mentioned in my texts.

In my book review for Photo-Eye I wrote that Got To Go was not a happy book. Do you agree? 

Got to Go is a tragicomedy.

When I view your photos I almost feel I'm looking through the eyes of an anthropologist. Your curiosity about people comes through clearly, and I know you've lived in many countries and cultures. Do you think your photos are about the universal human condition (whatever that is)? Are you trying to get inside the head of your subjects and figure out what makes us human?

Israel, 2011, from THEM

My eyes are the eyes of a poet. We understand art in terms of our knowledge and experience. I want people to be excited, to plunge deep into the pictures, unpeeling layer after layer of 
meaning. Everyone interprets in a different way.

What's the intention behind your photographs? What do you want them to say?

I don’t know what I want to say until I say it. My pictures are often ambivalent. My work reflects what I see in the world. Images are open to interpretation until they are contextualized and, even then, the viewer gets to choose.

Do you shoot color?

With my black and white silver gelatin prints, I stayed in control of every aspect of the process. I worked untold hours in the darkroom to interpret my negatives and create my final prints. Now that I am working with digital scans, color is a possibility. I am considering it.

(All words and images above © 2016 Rosalind Fox Solomon.)

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