By Steven Watson
RS: I used to feel that I should not discuss my experiences. I wanted the pictures to be judged as images only, but now I feel that it is important for me to share as much as I can.
I never felt as though I belonged and that was something that continued through my childhood. It changed somewhat when I became a teenager. I had chums then and boyfriends, but I always felt as though I was somebody different on the inside.
The idea of masking has always been prevalent in my work. I am always looking to find the innerness of the person who is before my camera. I am interested in the mask, but that is not what I am looking for. There are some people that it is impossible to unmask and those are not the people whom I most like to photograph.
When I was growing up: my mother wanted me to be a lady. She would say, “Modulate your voice and stand up straight. Be gracious.”
Mother told me that my great great grandmother traveled to Louisville Kentucky in a covered wagon, but I have began to wonder whether mother was that rooted . My father’s parents were Russian and I do not know what region they came from. Mother and Daddy married when they were 18 and 19 and I was an annoyance when I was born the next year. We lived in Highland Park, Illinois on the North Shore outside of Chicago. My family did not belong to Northmoore country club where my friends spent their summers playing tennis and lounging around the pool. my father wanted me to work and earn money. One summer I worked at Sears Roebuck Company for a dollar an hour. I stuffed envelopes all day for six weeks. Another summer my father arranged for me to go on Saturdays to his wholesale tobacco company to push pennies into cigarette packages. Smokers got change from vending machines that way. A pronged piece pushed pennies into Camels, Lucky Strikes and Marlboros. Getting to Daddy’s warehouse meant a terrifying walk alone through a deserted warehouse area. I took the Skokie Valley train into the city.
My grandmother was my role model. She worked for the Office of Price Administration during the Second World War, she wrote a cookbook,she taught bridge and she developed the sick room loan chest in Tucson. She was always doing something focused, though she had only a grammar school education. My grandfather wrote poetry and painted watercolors. He was snooty and prejudiced and thought of himself as an aristocrat.
Foxes Masquerade, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, 1993
SW: What is your first experience where you were aware of your earliest visual experience?
RS: My visual perception came from Mother’s probing eyes. Mother was highly critical. If a woman’s gloves were dirty she would comment, “Eleanor’s gloves are always dirty.” Or when I mentioned that Mrs. MacFarland, my scout leader was young and pretty, she would say, “Look at her neck. You can always tell a woman’s age by looking at her neck.” Mother’s eye for detail taught me to look carefully.
My father came from an orthodox Jewish background and my mother never went to Temple. I went to Sunday school because my father wanted us to understand Jewish history and tradition and we celebrated Christmas because my mother wanted to fully assimilate. I didn’t know exactly where I belonged and always felt the ground shifting beneath my feet.
SW: The Experiment in International Living?
RS: I was a bookworm, but my mother wanted a sociable and popular daughter. I felt like an outsider in my family. My parents had a small and unchanging circle of friends. I had no involvement with other cultures until after college. As a graduation present in 1951, my parents sent me with The Experiment in International Living to Belgium and France, and that completely changed the direction of my life. We landed at Marseilles after crossing the sea on the Anna Salena, a former refugee ship which was full of returning Fulbright Scholars. On the return voyage, the ship carried the first postwar German exchange students.
SW: When you got married at 23 did you have a concept of becoming a working woman?
RS: I had worked at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, for the Toni Company. I took dictation in shorthand and typed for three men in the advertising department. When I married in 1953 and moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, I wanted to go on working. I told my but my husband said, “No wife of mine is going to work. You can do volunteer work.”
The Troubles, 1990
SW: When did you start to move in another direction?
RS: When I was 31, I read an article in the Goucher Alumnae Quarterly about the Experiment in International Living saying that the experiment was placing groups in US communities. We brought a group of Chileans to Chattanooga.
During my pregnancy with Linda, I had decided to learn to speak Spanish and I spent two evenings a week speaking the language with the 18 year-old daughter of a Chilean friend. That’s how I got over being self-conscious about mistakes.
My husband enjoyed the enriching relationships that involvement with The Experiment added to our family life until The Experiment wanted me to handle their national public relations. This would have meant that I would need to go to frequently to work in New York and Vermont. My husband said, “If you take that job, we are going to get divorced,” and I drew back.
The Experiment wanted to place a number of Japanese groups in the South and to give me an understanding of Japanese culture, placed me with a family outside of Tokyo, where I lived for two weeks and then I traveled to Hiroshima and other parts of Japan for two weeks alone with a notebook of questions such as “where is a toilet? where is a restaurant?”
I started photographing in Japan because I could not communicate with my hosts. I used the camera that I had brought with me with me to talk to myself and I discovered an inner voice. I realized that I was putting my voice into pictures in Japan. I took pictures of what I was seeing and feeling and I never stopped.
My Chattanooga artist friends–Jim Collins, Stan Townsend, George Cress and Charles Counts–did not know anything about photography, but all of them helped by critiquing my images. Charles Counts had a pottery workshop in Rising Fawn, Georgia. He had a half dozen students in the summer of 1969 and they all threw pots on their wheels. Their silence and their intensity taught me something about the creative process. Charles invited me to show the pictures that I took at the Potter Workshop when he exhibited his pots at a small gallery in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
SW: Did you teach yourself?
RS: I was friendly with George Hull, a bonsai expert, and the chief photographer at the Chattanooga Times. He came for two hours to help me set up my darkroom and explained the chemistry to me. I took a small section of our garden shed for my darkroom. Within a few years, I made additions and expanded it to a spacious studio. I bought the Time Life books on photography and that was how I learned. From time to time when I got to NY, I would ask the camera store salesmen questions and I learned through them.
I did not know any other photographers until I went to Memphis to meet and to photograph Bill Eggleston. I met other photographers in Washington. I had very little knowledge of the history of photography. Early on I saw articles about Diane Arbus and I knew the work of Henri Cartier Bresson and Ansel Adams, but otherwise I cannot remember knowing about any other photographers. I think if I had lived in New York rather than in Tennessee, I never would have come to where I am today. I am still cowed when I see some other photographers’ exhibitions. I feel that it is best for me to wear blinders and keep drawing from within myself. Painting, film, theater, dance, music and reading inform and nourish my photography.
Valentine Boxes, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1976
I had no idea what I would do with the pictures that I was taking. When I studied with Lisette Model, I asked her,”What will I do with all of these pictures?” she said ,”Never be commercial. You are printing your photographs museums and collectors.”
At a Walker Evan’s show at the Modern, I noticed credit to Modernage Photo Lab for a print of an Evan’s photograph. I went to Modernage and had my pictures printed there, because I still had not found how to make good prints. It was through Modernage and a Christmas party there that I learned about Henrietta Brackman who was a Photographers’ Consultant. She told me that I had talent but that I needed instruction and she told Lisette Model about me and I began to study with Lisette.
SW: What was it like studying with Lisette?
RS: Lisette lived in a basement apartment on Charles Street. I walked by there the other day and looked down the stairs at her basement apartment which appeared as it had. When she lived there. She and her husband found all of their furniture on the streets of New York. Lisette gave me courage. She gave me the courage to believe that through the creation of my photographs I was doing the most important work. She gave me the courage to accept and recognize the strongest parts of my work and not to shy away from them. Lisette believed in going for the extreme. For years that is how I edited my work. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to represent other dimensions of myself in my work and found my own way of editing.
When I began studying with Lisette, I was working at First Mondays, a pre-Civil War flea market in Scottsboro, Alabama. I went from the dolls to people with dolls, to children and then to hospitals. These were choices related to my personal concerns. The Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga gave me permission to photograph patients as long as I got signed releases, I had free-run of the hospital.
When I lived in Washington, DC from 1977 – 1979, I photographed there and in Guatemala. Jane Livingston curated my show at the Corcoran Gallery. She suggested a room of Washington pictures and a room of Guatemala pictures. That would have been a wonderful and provocative show, but then I did not realize how important it could have been. Jane understood in 1980 how important it was to juxtapose different important layers of myself and my work.
SW: In Washington you probably did all of the things that your mother taught you and then you had the underground of Guatemala.
RS: The USA pictures that I had taken before Guatemala scared most people at that time. For example, I met Alice Walker when she read at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She was then a part-time editor at MS Magazine and she agreed to look at my work. On a visit to New York, I went to MS and showed her the doll series. She said these pictures reminded her of the three dead civil rights workers. This upset me because I did not understand then that a negative response to difficult and honest work can be the strongest response.
Interior with Buttoned Sofa, Rutland, Vermont, 1975
I met Audrey Wood, Tennessee William’s agent, through a friend. She loved my work and she wanted my doll pictures published. She circulated them and five publishers turned her down saying that the pictures were too macabre.
SW: I am struck you have had a lot of negative responses. At the same time Szarkowski liked your photographs, you had a show at the Corcoran. And at MOMA and at the Grey Gallery of Art.
RS: There were negative responses and I believe that those increased as during the eighties art world emphasized Conceptualism and the politically correct and my pictures, which are not easily categorized, may convey tension and ambiguity rather than an obvious political stance.
I was floating around in my own juice. I had no regular gallery representation and no advisors. I did not have a clue as to how to get my work published and better known. I did not know how to talk about my work or to write about it. I always wanted to hold it tight and to keep my experiences and personal impulses private. I had many bodies of work that could have been books along the way and occasionally, I tried to find publishers, but I never wanted to stop photographing to promote my photography.
When I showed people my Guatemala work it was well received. They could more easily accept close-up and realistic international work. Traveling gives me a focus for new knowledge through reading and through experience. I feel free to concentrate on photographing. In New York, I am married to my place and the production and organization of my pictures.
SW: You are able to get into their world. How you get into the culture?
RS: I went to Peru because I read about an earthquake that had occurred in Ancash in the early seventies. At that moment, the earthquake seemed a metaphor for my life and that motivated me to go there and I was also looking for a place as beautiful as the Guatemalan Highlands.
In 1980, the Andean people had no media consciousness. It was a different time. Other people had not traveled the region. There was one telephone in a village; no television, not even newspapers and magazines. The people I photographed did not contrive. They did not smile for the camera. They took me very seriously. I worked in a subsistence economy. When I began working there, an instant picture was magic. I took Polaroid pictures and gave them away. On return trips, I gave people 8 X 10” proofs.
Mother and Daughter, Brighton Beach, New York, USA, 1985
I found earthquake damaged tombs. The cemeteries were the only place where you could see the remnants of the earthquake. Those cemeteries were my jumping off point in 1980, but I found a culture inhabited by people who re-evoked the fairy tales that I had read as a child. There was shamanism, terror, enchantment and transformation. I returned to the area in 1981 and went with the same driver into the mountains, but his attitude towards me had changed. He behaved differently than he had the year before and I thought that I was a foil for drug trafficking or Shining Path violence and one night in a small town, I was panicked with fear for my life. In the early morning, I left the Land Rover where I had sat in fear all night and went into the the street toting a paper bag with my pictures. I asked a woman for help, saying, “I am with a guide and I am afraid and do not want to stay with him. What shall I do?” She said, “Go to see the Bishop.”
The bishop, Dante Frasnelli Tartar said, “You came to photograph Carnival and you must stay. We will give you a house and you can take your meals with the nuns.”
He introduced me to Madre Rosa Cedro and he told me that I could live in the Casa Blanca, a house overlooking the town and distant mountains. Madre Rosa got me someone to help with my heavy gear. I ate at the nuns long table. I never again found anything to equal that experience. I returned many times to the same area. I was as happy as I have ever been in my life during those months. I had opportunity to express myself and also to document a time in a forgotten region of Peru.
SW: You put yourself in very difficult places.
RS: Being in difficult places strips me down and reduces things to the essential. It keeps me completely focused on my work and the reasons why I am there. I do not like to socialize for the sake of it when I am working. I especially avoid socializing with diplomats and government functionaries and with people from the upper stratas of society. Such socializing never seemed helpful to my work. I feel a productivity in isolation from my own culture. Each day is structured. I am completely myself doing something that matters to me.
Catalin’s Valentin’s Lamb, Ancash, Peru, 1981
When I have questioned why I stay here when I feel stronger and more centered at 12,000 feet in the Andes, I realize that if I lived full-time in Peru, I would not hold on to the freedom that I have when I am traveling and working. I would get trapped by conventions. However, in New York, there is a part of myself that is completely cut off. There are not very many people with whom I share the variety of my experiences. I believe that the more unusual your experiences, the harder it is to find soul-mates. I have huge parts of myself that I can share only through my pictures.
In Calcutta, I lived in a guest house on Park Street at the Bengal Chambers. I was the only American staying there among a group of Russians and Bulgarians working on the Calcutta subway, and a Danish political scientist. My guide Santimoy Bhattachargee was interested in photography. His brother was a guru and Santi opened up everything to me. I was able to photograph in the Kali ashram frequently. Santi took me to many home festival celebrations. I recorded the festival sounds and music and Folkways released my album, Indian Love Rites.
I have experienced euphoric moments as I work. Those moments are addictive and I search for them, but most days are hard, working with translators or conversing with people in another language. I participate in other people’s ecstasy and try to understand how they resolve their problems. I travel on rough roads and visit homes where people live in poverty. It is not easy. You have to be considerate of customs and informed about the culture. I always make plenty of mistakes. I fumble on all levels and I always feel awkward and burdened with my equipment.
There are moments of feeling deep connection with individuals. Those are the rare moments when all differences seem to fall away–you see into one another. I see and feel who your essence and you see and feel mine.
I used to think that I could not photograph people I know. The best pictures come when people are strangers to me. If I am socially involved, I don’t think that I do as well.
Going back to Peru many years later, there were a lot of similarities, but some differences. Because I had experienced so much in-between, even if the area had not changed, it could not have had the same edge for me. Being a stranger brings a certain tension that helps the work. In the Andes where I am known, they call me Rosalinda. If they do not know my name they call me madre. They want to find a human link. In their culture there is no such thing as a woman traveling without family, unless she is a nun, so they found a context for accepting me by equating me with a nun.
A woman traveling alone with a driver in Latin America can have problems. Once a driver in Ecuador was giving me a hard time and finally I said to him, “Do not talk to me like that. If you don’t like the fact that I am a woman, just imagine that I am a man.”
I had to be strong. I have been a risk taker, not just with the traveling, but with my life, though I am often afraid. In my book, Chapalingas, directly or otherwise, I tried to include everything that I knew about my process and about different levels of myself.
Getting older is a challenge. People repeatedly asked me after I turned sixty, are you still doing it? Why wouldn’t I still be doing it? Dr. Judy Jolly, who was then the president of Goucher College, my alma mater, came to visit me when I was 69.
She said to me, “You must keep working. You need to be a role model to let women know what it is possible to do in their seventies.”
Since then, I sequenced and wrote the texts for Chapalingas and then I shot and completed a project in Poland. I have put my archive in shape and have plans for two new projects in 2006. Don’t ask what they are. If I discuss them, they will never happen. I need to be a little secretive.
Rosalind Solomon. Interviewed by Steven Watson, May 2003
Transcribed and edited by Rosalind Solomon 2005
ASX CHANNEL: ROSALIND SOLOMON
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