JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 black and white photographs, unframed and pinned directly to the wall in the front gallery space, the entry area, and along transitional hallways. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 1975 and 2001. The modern prints are sized 15×15, 24×24, 29×29, or 38×38 and are available in editions of 3. The show also includes a three channel video (10 minutes, 2016), shown in a darkened room at the rear of the gallery; it is available in an edition of 3. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by MACK (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Claustrophobic isn’t an adjective we often apply to photographic portraiture, but this particular edit of Rosalind Fox Solomon’s work is full of invisible codes that seem to tighten in around her subjects, leaving them struggling to put a brave face on otherwise uncomfortable situations. Drawn from four decades of work, these images largely center on women (and the adjacent men in their lives), documenting their changing roles in society with a dissonant brand of dark humor that balances empathy with a caustic bite. In the mode of Lisette Model and Diane Arbus, her pictures probe the underbelly hiding beneath the perfect veneer, poking at traumas that masquerade behind a façade of normalcy.
When seen on their own, Solomon’s women are often uneasy, caught either playing a part or wearily bearing unseen burdens. Slightly uncomfortable flash-lit plastic smiles adorn a society woman in an overly large knit dress and an elderly nursing home resident placed in the center of attention. A woman with prosthetic legs endures her pain with quiet strength, while an older woman cradling a doll exudes a different brand of stone cold ferocity. Social norms are upended in unique ways, from wearing exaggerated eye mascara to living out of car entirely in the nude. And when the pressure mounts, Solomon keys in on signs of strain – uncertainty surrounded by rings and bubbles, the challenge of facing age in the reflection of a plaid coat, and ultimately in tears that flow from a frustrated young girl in the rocky hills of Peru.
When men are around, things get even more awkward. Daughters are treated like dolls, held up in the air in fancy dresses for all to admire. Boyfriends cling with annoying dependence and desperation, hugging too much on the dance floor, pulling tight in the hallway, and brazenly pulling a leg over in the park. Husbands sit dumbfounded, with dinner on their knees. And when bearded dad decides to wear the creepy baby mask (the toddler in a bunny mask of her own), we topple over into the darkly surreal, where Solomon’s archly black humor takes over.
These themes get further enhanced when Solomon converts her work into book and slideshow forms. In her photobook, she intersperses the images with text snippets that feel like voices from the past bouncing around in her head, scolding and punishing, shaming and putting her in her place when her manners drift, with a touch of autobiographical resonance that gets too close for comfort – the quotes and rhymes cross into ugliness, with too many dated truths and harsh fault-finding guilt trips to be entirely fiction. In her slideshow, Solomon overlays her images with a voice over of some of these cutting texts (often punctuated with overt references to “mother”) and then adds an unnerving mix of operatic chants, bells, drums, and symphonic fragments (taken from Jason Eckardt’s composition Tongues) to further heighten the grating dissonance and debilitating psychological baggage. As the sounds and word echoes pile up, the weight of Solomon’s incisive vision of women’s roles hits home with quiet intensity.
This body of work is an excellent example of photographs that are richly informed by the female gaze – I can’t list too many male photographers who would be as finely attuned to the nuances of body language and facial expression, and what they imply about the lives of her sitters, as Solomon is here. (For some shrewd clashes, just image pairing these works with some of the images from Garry Winogrand’s Women Are Beautiful portfolio.) In packaging the pictures, she’s gone on to push that smart sensitivity even further, emphasizing the tension and struggle underneath and pointing us toward the flow of darker emotions. She’s at her best, and most acute, when she makes us ill-at-ease, piercing right to the heart of society’s invisibly daunting gender codes.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $5000 and $15000 based on size. Solomon’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.