Gut instinct for visceral images

October 29, 2004

One of my favourite photographs in this book is of a lorry-load of bananas in Bahia, Brazil, taken in 1980: bountiful, bright bananas on an 18-wheeler truck. Underneath, at the back, a spare wheel is stowed horizontally. Nestled inside it is a little stash of what could be damaged bananas or maybe sweetcorns - either way, something placed there, one supposes, by part of the truck team. Then one notices the skein of thin ropes holding the immense and intricate load in place. It is simple, majestic and perfectly observed. Elsewhere in the book is Rosalind Solomon's signature photograph, Catalin Valentin's Lamb, Ancash, Peru (1981) - an Indian woman in a white hat with a black band sits beside her flock of skinny sheep, cradling a lamb like a baby and holding its muzzle to her breast, as if giving it feed. Flash silhouettes the woman and the snow-white lamb from the drab sheep-field beyond. These and more than 200 other photographs by Solomon make up a book that is something of a blockbuster.

Photographic publishing has changed dramatically since Gerhard Steidl, a well-known and self-confessed workaholic, first took an active interest in the field. Many books that previously seemed impossible commercially have now become viable - or are issued, like this one, on an unusually ambitious scale. Steidl trained as an artist before setting up his printing and publishing company in Göttingen in the late 1960s. He has worked with the provocative poster artist Klaus Staeck, as well as with Joseph Beuys, Günter Grass and Karl Lagerfeld, and began publishing photography books in 1996.

Solomon's Chapalingas is a characteristic production, with texts in German, French and English, and fine black-and-white printing. Above all, it is epically extensive. Characteristically again, this book was published in partnership with an institution - in this case the SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne, which is based on the August Sander Archive. It came about, in fact, through the advocacy of Gerd Sander, chair of the SK Stiftung Kultur, who showed Solomon's work early in her career in his New York gallery.

The book is arranged in 16 visual chapters, prefaced by short essays by Susanne Lange, Ingrid Sischy and Gabriele Conrath-Scholl. Lange introduces the oeuvre as in essence "an individual creation story in pictures, a photographic genesis". Indeed, Solomon has been able to photograph a wide range of religious ritual, including a memorable if unexplained "sacrifice" of a rooster at night in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Sischy writes of Solomon as "among the last of a disappearing breed, the kind of photographer that, alas, could be described as an endangered species". Conrath-Scholl sees Solomon's arrangement of three decades of her photography as an "artist's book".

The chapters are arranged not by documentary criteria, such as time and place, but by themes. The first is "Food: fast, hunger, plenty and want". The finale is the Whitmanesque "Faith: bodies, myths, chants, drinks, eats, gods, souls, songs, scents, ships, fires, smokes, chalks, signs, lights". Conrath-Scholl sees the structure as "vastly more explosive" than a documentary sequence: "Abysses open up; strange things are revealed, the everyday is transformed into something grotesque, the harmonious and discordant find themselves in a tense alliance, giving rise to confusion and unease." This book will interest anyone engaged with the ambitious photography of perennial human concerns, and how these can be presented in book form today.

Solomon was born in Highland Park, Illinois, in 1930. She married at the age of 23, relocated to Chattanooga, Tennessee, raised a family and involved herself in grass-roots politics. She later remarked that she grew up feeling "masked and that the real me belonged somewhere else". Her breakthrough into photography came on an Experiment in International Living (an organisation that arranges for people to stay with families in foreign countries) trip to Japan in 1968. "What I found out there," she later wrote, "was that I was in community with myself. I realised how gratifying it was to be in touch with this inner voice, which I didn't even know I had."

Solomon built on that intuition and faith by exploring current photography and film, relating most intensely to the photographers Lisette Model and Diane Arbus, and the film-makers Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Luis Buñuel. She emulated Arbus in her choice of camera - the square frame and medium format of the Hasselblad, often with fill-in flash. In the 1970s, she found her voice as a photographer, making arresting, well-thought-out photographs - first in the American South, then in Washington, where her husband headed the General Services Administration under Jimmy Carter's presidency, and then locations further afield: Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, India, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Cuba and elsewhere. She used the camera as a means of connection: "Even though it was for brief moments, I cared about connecting on a meaningful level, on a gut level. I cared about getting away from stereotypes. And especially when I started working in other countries, I wanted to take portraits of people that showed them as real human beings, no matter where they were or what their background was."

Chapalingas is a corruption of the title of a Mexican song, which Solomon first sang with her Scout troop when she was earning her international badge as a nine-year-old. She and the other children did not understand the Spanish words they sang. Much later, when she was eating grasshoppers called chapulines in Oaxaca, she remembered the song. A flamenco dancer later told her that the song was called Chiapanecas and refers to dancers in Chiapas state. The word Chapalingas has its roots in Mexican culture but, (to adapt W. H. Auden) it was modified in the guts of the photographer. Like grasshoppers, potential pictures may stay in the same place for only one decisive moment, and their meanings do not stay still either. Only one photograph is tied down by its title - the cover-picture of a moon-faced boy (the flash effect again), high of forehead, thin of mouth, in a gloomy street with a strident poster. This is titled The Troubles, West Belfast, Northern Ireland (1990).

The organisation of the photographs by theme is at its most elliptical, or unstable, in the series on "Splits: rifts, gaps, breaks". It opens with Ranch Couple, Wyoming , who are separated by a fence; followed by a boy - apparently turned away from family members - holding a book called What is Life? ; and then Man with Hansen's Disease (in a wheelchair). I was not sure that I could see the various connections intended or that I was really to read, say, a fence as a significant psychological metaphor. However, these signs were more visible, even emphatic, in the theme "Slews: scads, droves", which is about the repetitions that photography catalogues so well. Here, though, the repetitions include not only the strikingly freckled face of a boy drinking coke in Scottsboro, Alabama, but the spread of Karposi's sarcoma across the face of a young man wearing a "SILENCE= DEATH" badge on a march in Washington. Conrath-Scholl was right to use the word "uneasy".

Mark Haworth-Booth is visiting professor of photography, University of the Arts, London.


Author - Rosalind Solomon
Publisher - Steidl and Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne
Pages - 464
Price - $65.00
ISBN - 3 88243 877 0

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