Rosalind Fox Solomon, The Forgotten

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by MACK Books (here). Embossed hardback, 24 x 28 cm, 160 pages, with 69 monochrome photographs. Includes excerpted texts by Bertolt Brecht, Ilya Kaminsky, and Masuji Ibuse. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Rosalind Fox Solomon’s latest book The Forgotten collects square format monochromes from a range of decades and locations. Solomon is primarily interested in people, so portraiture comprises the bulk of the photographs. But the book also includes a smattering of inanimate objects such as animals, bones, thorns, and a large graffitied boulder which serves as an opening cornerstone. All are bound together into a format roughly similar to past monographs (this is her fourth with MACK, all since 2014), with one picture per spread in a steady drumbeat rhythm.

The pattern may be familiar but the title signals a fresh direction, or perhaps fumes of an older one, for the photos capture bygone people and incidents. They might have slipped through the cracks of time if not for Solomon, and The Forgotten is an effort to stave off that fate and pull them briefly back into consciousness. Of course all photographs salvage history, sometimes without even trying. Solomon must realize this. Her choice of title is a willful act of recovery.

Is it too much to read self appraisal into the title also? Solomon’s oeuvre will not soon be forgotten, but there is some risk of it being overlooked in the present. That might seem a strange assessment for a photographer who’s achieved every success imaginable. She had numerous gallery shows and published several monographs. She is widely collected by dozens of museums, with major awards including a Guggenheim fellowship, an NEA award, and a ICP Lifetime Achievement award. After a relatively late start at 38, Solomon has seemingly reached the top of her field at 92. It’s been a long road, and it’s only picking up speed.

And yet her work is treated as an afterthought in some circles, brushed aside or overshadowed by Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, Judith Joy Ross, or portrait-centered contemporaries. She’s been offered no retrospective exhibitions to date, and until relatively recently she’d not even published a proper monograph. That occurred finally in 2003 (she was 73!) with Chapalingas, a blockbuster collection which still remains the best comprehensive book on Solomon. Since then she’s notched a path forward one monograph at a time, each one curating her vast archives into slightly varied vehicles, each more reliant on strong frames than conceptual framework. If none have yet lit the art world on fire, that’s no matter. Solomon plunges ahead. But still, it’s fair to wonder if this most recent title —The Forgotten—carries more baggage than initially meets the eye.

If Solomon’s portraits have faced headwinds, it may be because they’re uncomfortable to look at. Like its predecessors, The Forgotten is not exactly wall calendar material. The pictures penetrate far corners of the world with direct honestly, revealing latent truths that many viewers would prefer unearthed. A photo of nursing home residents (“Merida, Mexico, 1985”), for example, documents everyday boredom with unsettling banality and finality. A woman crouching behind a doll strewn bannister (“Calhoun, George, 1976”) appears unhinged in a fantasyland, or perhaps she’s just been caught in an awkward moment. It’s hard to say. All photographs can be ambiguous, a fact leveraged by Solomon with aplomb. A portrait of four women gathering water in West Bengal, India captures them gazing at her camera with something between bemusement and alarm. We can’t tell exactly what’s on their minds, but it’s certainly not optimism.

Among its several dozen pictures The Forgotten includes an outsized quantity of amputees, disfigurements, and blinded subjects. Body parts might be lost or altered, Solomon reminds us, but never forgotten. Perhaps she intends us to think of the less fortunate? Her photographs can certainly operate that way. But the blunt carnality of her attention is disconcerting. Why such a fascination with the disadvantaged? Is she offering them visibility, or pointing fingers? There’s fine line between empathy and freak show, and a long tradition of photographers have attempted to thread it, from Weegee and Diane Arbus to Martin Parr and Bill Burke. I once asked Solomon in an interview if she felt that her portraits were flattering. “Of course, flattery is not my intention,” she replied.

That might seem cold to some. But her remove allows a certain purity of observation, backed by technical chops. Solomon has been at her craft for decades. She knows how to approach people and how to address (or attack?) them visually. Perspective, lighting, composition, and timing are all second nature. The resulting photos form a very tight book. The Forgotten is a series of bangers with hardly a bad shot in the mix. The sequence bounces from year to year, and to various locations. Loosened from context, the photos behave like free agents, untethered from history or custom. Solomon’s shot of a Kathmandu beggar might raise ethical qualms, but few would deny its photographic power. On the contrary, its moral ambiguity helps electrify the image. A photo taken outside Hanoi in 2007 is equally disturbing, with two men seemingly in a rehabilitation unit. Who are they? What was she doing there? Who knows, but Solomon’s record of the event is so stirring it’s hard to turn away. Multiply by several dozen and you’ve got a book of harsh observations, with judgments baked in.

On occasion, Solomon’s cultural views encroach more overtly. Raised in a strict home—My childhood in Highland Park was difficult. White gloves, white teeth. Smiling was important.”—she’s always fostered a rebellious streak. Short texts in the book bite with skepticism, in particular Ilya Kaminsky’s poem, which spouts sarcastically, “…our great country of money (forgive us) lived happily during the war.” 

If that excerpt hints at dissension, Solomon’s pictures follow suit. Her well-known photo of a white family posing near their hapless black maid (“Johannesburg, South Africa, 1988”) is so sharply observed it might be an editorial cartoon. A photo of skulls stacked against a Tuol Sleng wall (“Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, 1992”) would be horrific without Solomon’s sly inclusion: a cardboard box nearby marked CONTRIBUTIONS. Elsewhere in the book she captures flag-waving parade watchers (“New York, New York, 2001”) with subtle menace, and politicians mixing with wary war vets (“Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1977”). A photo of parade pageantry (“New Orleans, Louisiana, 1992”) feels downcast. “Let’s Celebrate!” screams a poster in the background. Meanwhile, the bejeweled woman centering the picture seems due for a nap.

Several of these photos appeared in Chapalingas, but their reuse doesn’t detract. That book came out some years ago. In any case, the photos are timeless, and worth revisiting. The majority of The Forgotten’s pictures are unseen until now, at least by me. With each new monograph, Solomon seems to unearth a new motherlode of gems. She must be sitting on thousands. Where has she been hiding them all? How does she manage them? How much more material remains in the pipeline?

With photographers who follow Solomon’s process —focused primarily on the photographic act, leaving the conceptual glue for later— curation is always thorny. How do certain photos mix into a cohesive edit? How are they housed under one project? The keen eye of a publisher like MACK must be a help, but the secret sauce remains a mystery. The Forgotten is a deliberate view into the rear-view mirror, plucking out memories for reappraisal. But since all photographs do that, it’s unclear what led to this particular edit. There are scars and markings, yes, but these appear in her other books too. Perhaps I shouldn’t pry too deeply, since whatever’s she’s doing is working. This is a strong grouping of photos. They entertain, inform, and support each other. But that’s true of all Solomon’s monographs, none of which seem destined to be forgotten.

Collector’s POV: Rosalind Fox Solomon is represented by Foley Gallery in New York (here), and Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto (here). Solomon’s work has not been routinely available in the secondary markets in recent years, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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