Guest Columns

The Photographs of Rosalind Fox Solomon


Hilary Reid

Rosalind Fox Solomon was 38 years old when she began taking photographs. In an Aperture interview with Francine Prose, Solomon describes her “exterior” life in the early ‘70s, when she was married to her husband, a shopping center developer, and spending “tedious evenings with couples whose main interests were cooking and golf.” Solomon’s mind was elsewhere—on Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique; community affairs in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the League of Women Voters; and photography. “I started taking pictures as a way of talking to myself,” she says in the interview with Prose. “I got the sensation of what it was to get something out through a camera that might represent what I was seeing and feeling.” Solomon, who is now 85, went on to travel independently throughout the US, South America, Africa, and the Middle East to take pictures. The practice was a physical escape from her conventional “housewife” life in Tennessee. It was a symbolic departure, too. The act of taking pictures—of representing what she was seeing and feeling—was a rejection of the conventional, “nice,” “proper” life she was expected to live.

Of course, departing from the expected is never quite so straightforward—what is deeply engrained from the beginning is hard to shake. Got to Go—Solomon’s new black and white monograph, which coincides with her show at Bruce Silverstein gallery in New York—reckons with the early part of her life, and especially her relationship with her mother, who m she has described as “overly concerned about convention and propriety.” Her mother only appears in a few photos in Got to Go, but many of the photographs are captioned with words from Solomon’s mother, or words that the photographer wrote with her mother in mind. They are brief, poetic, and often cruel. Take, for instance, a series of photographs captioned with texts that begin “mother says”:


These fragments caption images of young girls. In one photo, taken in Merida, Mexico in 1985, a girl with sharp elbows holds a toy truck with a smart, scheming look on her face. We feel that telling this girl to “act like a lady” undermines everything that is sporty and vital about her. In the photo juxtaposed with “SMILE YOUR FACE WON’T CRACK,” taken in New York in 1987, a young black girl wears a Statue of Liberty headband and oversized sunglasses. Despite her accessories, which look ripe for a tourist photo opportunity, she stares into the camera, unsmiling. On the opposite page, with the text “WIPE THAT SMILE OFF YOUR FACE,” a child beauty queen in a tiara and makeup smiles demurely while holding a piece of a salted pretzel. The photo was taken in 2000, about fifteen years after the others. In “GO OUTSIDE / IF YOU ACT LIKE A DOG / LIVE LIKE A DOG” a young girl sits alone in the mountains of Ancush, Peru, sobbing. This is the most heartbreaking of the photos—of a lost child, perhaps, one who has no chance of ever going home. We feel the timeless impossibility of being a young girl in these pages—smile, don’t smile, stop blinking, eat this way, don’t stretch your neck that way. Solomon’s technique here is powerful—though the texts were taken from her own mother, they are familiar enough that they could be from any mother, directed toward any daughter. Like Solomon, these girls will have to reject what is expected of them in order to move beyond the conventional. And yet Solomon’s approach does not feel overly broad or didactic. The portraits present the girls as individuals, with facial expressions that work with, and also transcend, the mother’s words.

Combining text and images is a technique that works especially well with Solomon’s photographic style, which is, on its surface, documentary, but also open to empathy and pathos. Solomon paired text and images in her 2014 monograph THEM, which collects pictures taken 2010 and 2011 in Israel and Palestine. Culled from journals that she kept while traveling, the text fragments function in a similar way to those included in Got to Go. In both monographs, the text adds a story to a photograph—beyond the story suggested by the picture itself—and gives the book a narrative arc. In an interview with curator Charlotte Cotton about THEM, Solomon says:

My personal conflicts and responses are part of whatever I do as an artist. My own history is a point of reference when I seek to understand the factors that influence others. In Israel and the West Bank those factors included location, race and religion. These determine where people live, how they are treated and their expectations for the future. I draw on all of my resources as I get in touch with the culture that is around me.

This approach is compelling because it allows Solomon to evoke a large social force—patriarchy, in Got to Go—but express it in a nuanced and personal way. Take, for instance, a photograph of a very average man holding a middle-aged woman in his arms, like a young girl. The woman, who wears all white with big sunglasses and high-heeled sandals, looks proud, as if she has won some kind of pageant. The corresponding text reads: “I am / the acme of a lady / women’s lib / will make life miserable / I like / a man’s arm / helping me / up and down a curb / I’m not independent / why should I be? / I’m spoiled rotten.” Here we feel that the oppressive force in the woman’s life is herself—not patriarchy writ large. There is dark humor in her statement (“I’m spoiled rotten”) and we have the sense that she knows she is a contrarian (“women’s lib will make life miserable”) but couldn’t care less. She is a kind of feminist nightmare: the woman who doesn’t want to be equal, who likes things just the way they are. But one can’t help but think of the phrase “the lady doth protest too much.” How could anyone so insistent, even angry, not have doubts?

On the following pages, we find two older women both wearing heavy makeup and feminine blouses. One looks as if she has seen something terrifying, and the other looks wearily at the camera while smoking a cigarette in a long holder. We might take their expressions to be reactions to the ridiculous “acme of a lady.” At the same time, we feel that they, too, are implicated in the old-fashioned standards that the “acme of a lady” reveres. The flash from Solomon’s camera acts as an exclamation point, revealing the inevitabilities of age in these women’s faces, which have been concealed under masks of makeup. In an attempt to look pretty and youthful, they have buried themselves in the way that a youth-obsessed culture buries old faces in favor of new, younger ones. Solomon, of course, has brought these women to our attention—under her watch they will not become invisible.

There is a deep ambivalence in the way that Solomon portrays her own mother in Got to Go. She appears in one of the opening photos in the book, with the accompanying text:

mother says youth is my god / i hate age / everything is such an effort / i take benzadrine / to cope with my aches and pains / last time before they operated on me / i ate thirty hershey bars / then i found out i have diabetes / no hersheys tonight boo hoo / nothing can help me now but a new leg / hip hip hurray / i’m getting intravenous tonight / i don’t know whether it’s the appetizer / or the post-mortem / yesterday i thought i would congeal / my feet are just like ice / in a few days i’ll be a dead ass / there will be no tomorrow.

The tone here is electric, vibrating between wit and sorrow. In the corresponding photo, Solomon’s flash illuminates her mother’s face and the fringe collar of her sweater dress. She looks utterly charmed—but something is a bit off. Perhaps it is the almost pure split of light and dark background, or just how extravagant that fringe, suggestive of a thousand small nooses, looks around her neck. The photo works without the text, but the juxtaposition brings this woman to life. She is simultaneously frivolous, dark, and complicated. One wonders if Solomon’s mother was strangled by the conventions her daughter escaped.

Solomon’s father is also referenced in the texts of Got to Go. He is presented as obliviously well meaning and yet violent. Oh you beautiful doll, you great big beautiful doll, reads one text, and while we sense that he says this affectionately, we also know that a doll is an inanimate object existing for others’ play. On a different page, there is a photo of a man wearing a tuxedo shirt and jacket with shorts and sneakers. He is sitting with a baton between his legs and wears a malevolent fox mask and top hat. The text below reads, “father lays me over his knees and spanks me as hard as he can.” It is a chilling image and sentiment, and one that reveals the cruel undercurrent that flows beneath the placid surface of the family’s “domestic bliss.” This tension swells into an explosion when it is revealed that the father is having an affair. In one of the most moving sections of the book, Solomon pairs three photos of off-kilter couples with the text “someone let the cat out of the bag.” Then, a photograph of a cave-like man crouching on the floor, wearing a big fur hat and wielding two large knives, with another stuck into the ground, is captioned, “father is having an affair.” On the following page, two male hands forcefully crush a doll between the pages of a thick antique book. The “beautiful doll” is crushed, and she has no choice—she is just a doll, after all. She exists to be pretty and played with, nothing more. A few pages later the text returns to the mother’s voice: “mother says / i was away / you left your father alone / IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.” It is in these pages that the emotion behind the book’s title, Got to Go, feels the most immediate. The traditional world for which her mother has stubbornly advocated is in shambles—there is no longer a façade of domestic bliss. The moment of revelation has occurred: this is no way to live. The only way to sustain oneself is to reject everything and everyone who has insisted it must be this way and no other.

Ultimately, we know that Solomon did leave this world—the photographs in Got to Go are evidence of five decades outside. By the end of the book, Solomon’s tale of mother and daughter comes full circle. We learn that the mother figure has died—a moment which leaves the narrator to “sit shivering in a steaming pool” at the thermal baths. The mother’s death is not met with celebration, but a sharp melancholy that feels poignant and honest. In the penultimate photograph, a very old woman in a white gown and long white pearls and a bedazzled mask pushed up to her forehead dances in a nursing home, while other elderly men and women look on. In the background, a brass band plays. The dancing woman smiles and is illuminated by Solomon’s flash, as if she might herself be a glowing white light. The text reads “you must have been a beautiful baby / you must have been a wonderful child / when you were only starting to go to kindergarten / I bet you drove the little boys wild… / oh you must have been a beautiful baby / ‘cause baby look at you now.” On the final page, a photo stands alone without text. Taken in 1980 in Bahia Brazil, every corner of the photo is filled with tribesmen wearing traditional outfits. In the center of the photo, a single white dove is perched on one man’s arm. The dove is poised amid chaotic surroundings, graceful and alone. We sense that she will fly away at any moment. She is a symbol of peace—the peace that comes from knowing that at any moment, she can, and will, go.