An Interview with Rosalind Fox Solomon
Rosalind Fox Solomon’s photographic career has been defined by an itch for travel and a desire to use the camera as a means of self-discovery, or, as she puts it, as a way of “talking to myself.” A student of photographer Lisette Model, who was known for her confrontational images of New York City’s street life, Solomon, over many decades, has photographed extensively in South and Central America, India, and Poland—as well as in places closer to home, like New York and the American South. Her work, however, is often metaphorical, transcending mere descriptions of place. For Aperture’s recent Interview Issue, novelist and critic Francine Prose met with Solomon last April at her Manhattan home, where the two spoke about the trajectory of Solomon’s career, her leitmotifs of ritual, religion, gender, and travel, and her relationship with Model.
Interview by Francine Prose
FP: How did you start working with Lisette Model?
RFS: Modernage lab led me to Lisette Model. Though I worked in the darkroom, I didn’t know what I was doing. So when I got to New York, I took my film to the Modernage photo-lab and had prints made. I went to their Christmas party in 1971 or ’72, and I met a photography agent, Henrietta Brackman. She made an appointment with me, saying, “Bring everything you’ve ever done.” I said, “I can’t. There’s too much.” She said, “You have to bring everything you’ve ever done.” I brought two huge suitcases full of things, and after she looked at my pictures, she said, “You have talent but you need help. You should study with Lisette Model. She was Diane Arbus’s teacher.” Diane Arbus and Ansel Adams were the only photographers I had heard of at that time. I got in touch with Lisette and she said, “The next time you come, meet me and bring everything you’ve ever done.”
FP: You already had it packed in the suitcases.
RFS: The next time I got to New York, I brought everything I’d ever done. Lisette came to my hotel room, and she looked at my pictures from six o’clock until midnight. Finally, she was too tired to go on, but she told me that I could study with her. Whenever my husband came to New York on business, I came with him and brought my pictures to show to Lisette.
FP: And what did “studying” mean?
RFS: Before we began, Lisette spent a half hour talking about herself and her career. She was blunt and though she had much success early on, getting her work out had become more difficult. She talked about the work of other photographers—the ones she considered authentic and the ones whose work she did not like because it was commercial or derivative. I got impatient as I listened to her, but eventually, I realized that all of what she said was instructive. Finally, she would look at what I had done and critique the prints. Then she looked at my contact sheets to see what I had not chosen. She said to always go for the extreme. By this I think she meant, Be true to yourself as an artist. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t do your work to please others. She advised, Always make one picture you can give to a subject; otherwise be free in what you do. One of the most important things I learned from her was to take risks.
FP: Did things change radically when you started working with her?
RFS: I was in my early forties when I met her. Lisette was a strong influence. She was my mother in art. My birth mother was overly concerned about convention and propriety. Lisette was the opposite. She convinced me that the most important thing in my life was my work. She would say, “You need a close-up lens.” And I’d say, “But that costs so much money.” She’d say, “Can’t you afford it, dahling?” She always pushed me to upgrade my darkroom, to get any kind of camera equipment that I needed, to keep moving ahead. And since my husband always felt it was important for me to buy modish clothes—he really cared about that—I knew that I could certainly afford to buy some camera equipment. I still remember a camera shop salesman who tried to convince me that I did not need to upgrade to a more professional enlarger. Lisette encouraged me to be oblivious to what people thought about me or my work.
FP: You start off taking pictures of dolls. They don’t talk. But when you begin to take pictures of the living, especially during festivals and rituals, what do you say to your subjects?
RFS: I don’t say very much.
FP: You just started shooting?
RFS: In the spring of 1978, I planned a week’s trip to Guatemala with my husband. It was a vacation for him, and an opportunity for me to speak Spanish and take pictures in an environment far removed from life in Washington. After the initial trip, I went back a number of times. I traveled alone with a driver guide. This enabled me to get deeper into my work.
Even though I speak Spanish, I didn’t say very much. I soon learned that if you engage very
much, you lose a certain tension in the picture. Rather than make people feel at ease, I find that
some tension between me and the person I am photographing yields something more complex. I always traveled with a local driver who spoke to people on my behalf as I began shooting. I carried a Polaroid always and took pictures to give to people after I finished making my pictures. I also brought back proof prints on subsequent trips and gave them to people I had photographed.
I photographed shamans in Guatemala. There was a personal connection. My husband had
a progressive congenital disease. Knowing that his mother, aunts, and an uncle had died of the disease, from the time that he found out during the first year of our marriage, I thought about this. I was interested in how other people dealt with sadness. In Guatemala, they coped with the help of shamans, ritual, religion. I encountered people who were in much more difficult circumstances than I could ever imagine. Once I was in a séance in Peru with two shamans, a man and a woman who were reputedly lovers. We were sitting around a little fire in a little hut for a coca séance. They incanted and sang, “Smoke your cigarette and cha-cha your coca.” I told them that my husband was sick. I mean, I didn’t really believe in this. I didn’t believe in it but I just—
FP: Everybody sort of believes in it.
RFS: I thought maybe it would be helpful. So I told them about my husband and they took it very, very seriously. They told me that I had to get a guinea pig and rub the guinea pig on the body part that was injured or sick, and presumably the illness would pass into the guinea pig. So they told me to get a guinea pig and rub it over his body.
FP: How did that play out when you got home?
FP: So when you found these drivers, you would say, “Do you know any shamans?”
RFS: Yes. I photographed a lot of shamans in Guatemala. I also photographed landscapes,
farmers, and Easter processions. In Peru, my driver was a twenty-two-year-old Chilean named Pablo. His parents had been supporters of Allende and they had gone to live in Germany after Allende was assassinated. Pablo went to Peru and married a Peruvian. Our first trip was idyllic. I had a lot of fun with him. The road up into the Andes was beautiful and untouched. We encountered women carrying spindles and weavers on the side of the road. In reality, people were living hard lives in a subsistence economy, but what was going on then was from another time. On my next trip with Pablo, I planned to photograph carnival celebrations. He sang revolutionary songs and stopped to use binoculars to look up into caves in the mountains. I began to think that he must be involved with the Shining Path [a Maoist guerrilla group]. We got rooms for the night in a pension in a small village. I got up in the middle of the night and went out into the van. I was scared.
At dawn, I went out in the street and talked to a woman, saying, “I’m with a driver and I don’t
have confidence in him.” I was afraid to say anything more. She said, “Go to see the bishop.” I told the bishop that I had come to photograph carnival, but I had to leave my guide. He said, “Stay and take your pictures. We will help you.” He introduced me to Madre Rosa Cedro. For a few weeks, I lived in a house belonging to the church that was near the convent and had meals with the nuns.
FP: Is there a photo of her? Standing by a horse?
RFS: Yes, I went with her on an overnight horseback trip to a remote area. I went back a number of times to that village.