Rosalind Fox Solomon, The Forgotten

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

Comments/Background: Rosalind Fox Solomon’s Last Book the forgotten collects square-format monochromes from multiple decades and locations. Salomon is primarily interested in people, so portraiture makes up the bulk of photographs. But the book also includes a handful of inanimate objects such as animals, bones, thorns, and a large graffitied rock that serves as the opening capstone. All are bound together in a format roughly similar to previous monographs (this is his fourth with MACK, all since 2014), with one image per page in a steady drumbeat rhythm.

The motif may be familiar, but the title signals a new direction, or perhaps the offshoots of an older direction, as the photos capture past people and incidents. They could have passed through the cracks of time without Solomon, and the forgotten is an effort to ward off that fate and briefly bring them back to consciousness. Of course, all the photographs save the story, sometimes without even trying. Solomon must realize this. His choice of title is a voluntary act of recovery.

Is it too much to read the self-assessment in the title too? Solomon’s work will not soon be forgotten, but it risks being forgotten in the present. That might seem like an odd assessment for a photographer who has achieved every success imaginable. She has had numerous gallery exhibitions and published several monographs. She is widely collected by dozens of museums, with major awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA Award, and ICP Lifetime Achievement Award. After a relatively late start at 38, Solomon has seemingly risen to the top of his pack at 92. It’s been a long road and it’s only getting faster.

And yet her work is treated as an afterthought in some circles, dismissed or eclipsed by Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, Judith Joy Ross or portrait-centric contemporaries. She has not been offered any retrospective exhibitions to date, and until relatively recently she had not even published a proper monograph. It finally happened in 2003 (she was 73!) with Chapalingas, a best-selling collection that still remains the best complete book on Solomon. Since then, she has forged a path forward, one monograph at a time, each curating her vast archive in slightly varying vehicles, each relying more on solid frameworks than on a conceptual framework. If none have set the art world on fire yet, it doesn’t matter. Solomon dives ahead. But still, it’s fair to wonder if this most recent title –The forgotten-carries more luggage than it initially appears.

If Solomon’s portraits have faced headwinds, it may be because they are uncomfortable to look at. Like its predecessors, the forgotten is not exactly a wall calendar material. The footage penetrates the farthest corners of the world with straightforward honesty, revealing latent truths that many viewers would rather unearth. A photo of residents of a nursing home (“Merida, Mexico, 1985”), for example, documents the daily boredom with unsettling banality and finality. A woman squatting behind a banister strewn with dolls (“Calhoun, George, 1976”) appears unbalanced in a fantasy land, or perhaps she has just been caught in an awkward moment. It’s hard to say. All photographs can be ambiguous, a fact Solomon exploits with aplomb. A portrait of four women collecting water in West Bengal, India, captures them staring at her camera with something between bewilderment and alarm. We can’t say exactly what they think, but it’s certainly not optimism.

Among his dozens of photos the forgotten includes an inordinate number of amputees, disfigured and blind subjects. Parts of the body can be lost or altered, Solomon reminds us, but never forgotten. Perhaps she intends to make us think of the less fortunate? His photographs can certainly work that way. But the carnal brutality of his attention is disconcerting. Why such a fascination for the underprivileged? Does it offer them visibility or does it point the finger? The line between empathy and freak show is thin, and a long tradition of photographers has attempted to bridge it, from Weegee and Diane Arbus to Martin Parr and Bill Burke. I once asked Solomon in an interview if she found her portrayals flattering. “Of course, flattery is not my intention,” she replied.

It may seem cold to some. But its withdrawal allows a certain purity of observation, backed by technical lapping. Solomon has been in his craft for decades. She knows how to approach people and address them (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 barely a bad hit in the mix. The sequence bounces from year to year, and in various places. Detached from their context, the photos behave like free agents, unrelated to history or custom. Solomon’s photo of a Kathmandu beggar might raise ethical qualms, but few would deny its photographic power. On the contrary, its moral ambiguity helps to electrify the image. A photo taken outside Hanoi in 2007 is equally disturbing, with two men apparently in a rehabilitation unit. Who are they? What was she doing there? Who knows, but Solomon’s account of the event is so moving that it’s hard to turn away from it. Multiply by several tens and you have a book of harsh observations, with built-in judgments.

On occasion, Solomon’s cultural views encroach more openly. Raised in a strict household—My childhood in Highland Park was difficult. White gloves, white teeth. The smile was important. – she has always maintained a rebellious side. Short texts in the book bite with skepticism, especially Ilya Kaminsky’s poem, which gushed sarcastically, “…our great silver country (pardon us) lived happily during the war.”

If this excerpt hints at dissent, Solomon’s photos follow suit. His well-known photo of a white family posing next to their hapless black maid (“Johannesburg, South Africa, 1988”) is so well observed it could be an editorial cartoon. A photo of skulls stacked against a wall in Tuol Sleng (“Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, 1992”) would be gruesome without Solomon’s sneaky inclusion: a nearby cardboard box marked CONTRIBUTIONS. Elsewhere in the book, she captures parade watchers waving flags (“New York, New York, 2001”) with subtle menace, and politicians mingling with suspicious war veterans (“Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1977”) . A parade ceremonial photo (“New Orleans, Louisiana, 1992”) looks dejected. “Let’s celebrate!” shouts a poster in the background. Meanwhile, the bejeweled woman in the center of the image appears to be taking a nap.

Many of these photos have appeared in Chapalingas, but reusing them does not remove anything. This book came out a few years ago. In any case, the photos are timeless, and deserve to be revisited. The majority of The forgotten the footage is unpublished so far, at least by me. With each new monograph, Solomon seems to unearth a new vein of precious stones. She must be sitting on thousands. Where did she hide them all? How does she manage them? How much material is left in the pipeline?

With photographers following Solomon’s process – focused primarily on the photographic act, leaving the conceptual glue for later – conservation is always tricky. How do certain photos blend into a cohesive montage? How are they hosted in the same project? The keen eye of an editor like MACK must be a help, but the secret sauce remains a mystery. the forgotten is a deliberate view in the rearview mirror, ripping out memories for reassessment. But as all photographs do, it is unclear what led to this particular alteration. There are scars and marks, yes, but those also appear in his other books. Maybe I shouldn’t stress too much, since everything she does works. This is a strong grouping of photos. They entertain, inform and support each other. But this is true of all Solomon’s monographs, none of which seem destined to be forgotten.

Collector’s point of view: Pictured is Rosalind Fox Solomon by Foley Gallery in New York (here), and Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto (here). Solomon’s work has not been consistently available on secondary markets in recent years, so gallery retail probably remains the best option for interested collectors to follow.

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