A compact show at Foley Gallery of some 30 black and white images by Rosalind Fox Solomon (b. 1930) coincides with the release of The Forgotten, her photo book spanning the 1970s to the early aughts. In an interview with Vulture, Solomon said that she didn’t like giving out information because “the depth is in the pictures.” Most of her titles merely list locations. In a way, Solomon harks back to a time when viewers believed that pictures told it all. As the Foley survey shows, such contextual reticence pays off, with occasional downsides.
Solomon creates drama masterfully in her succinct images. In the gallery’s vitrine, “Sword and doll, Jonesboro, Tennessee”(1976), a fascinating puzzle of off-kilter perspective, features a smallish uniformed adult male with a sword and a life-sized young girl doll lurking to the side. The composition has certain American Gothic vibe of lost or perverted innocence. In “Georgia” (1976), an elderly woman crowded by dolls flashes a bewildered stare from behind a staircase rail, resulting in a “Baby Jane” atmosphere. While these images aren’t as direct in their social and cultural critique as those that Solomon took of gun-toting Southern whites, they nevertheless suggest how out of place the artist, a Jewish Illinois native, felt upon moving to the American South.
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Solomon traveled widely. Many of her images show that foreignness can be a gift to a perceptive artist who has not internalized the social codes or naturalized the visual markers of a place. Such distancing appears to be at play in “South Africa” (1990), which depicts a middle-aged white woman clad in tribal robes and necklaces beating an African drum. While the portrait may not whack viewers over the head as a strident condemnation of apartheid, the cultural obliviousness it telegraphs is nevertheless unimaginable in any other context. In the more oblique “Poland” (1988), three women who might be friends or family hide their faces with their palms. Knowledge that the photograph was taken in communist Poland, in which the government spied on its citizens, adds a political dimension.
Latin America seems to be Solomon’s creative Achilles’ heal, at least judging from the works included here. Dusty, poor landscapes are peopled with smiling children as eager, non-threatening subjects, as well as farmers and housewives of different social classes, posed amid their environs. The generic flatness of some of these images underscores the limitations of a flaneur eye, no matter how empathetic. But there’s an occasional nugget, and when it comes it takes your breath away. I stood transfixed before “Mexico” (1985), which captures three elderly women sitting in a sterile white room, perhaps in a nursing home. Slumped archly or leaning back, mouth gaping asthmatically, the women appear lost — to each other, the world, time.
Viewers could come back to this image every day and, depending on their mood, read it as the epitome of desolation and loneliness or a vision of quietist oblivion. This may be what Solomon means by depth, as that final, ultimate measure of humanity, which her viewers must search for within themselves.
Rosalind Fox Solomon: The Forgotten continues at Foley Gallery (59 Orchard Street, Manhattan) through December 5.
The Forgotten by Rosalind Fox Solomon (2021) is published by MACK Books.