New York

Rosalind Solomon

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

This show was subtitled “Ritual,” and most of the photographs in it were of weddings, burials, and other ceremonies in Latin America and India. Despite this, the point of Rosalind Solomon’s pictures is neither documentary nor anthropological. Solomon usually provides only the barest of wall labels to identify the events she depicts, and the few pictures shown here covered such a wide range of rituals that no analysis of any one of them was offered by the way they were grouped. In her photographs Solomon seems to want to propose something about rituals in general, or about the function of rituals in different cultures. At the same time, she uses these situations for the emotional intensity they entail, finding in them metaphors for personal emotions.

Pictures with this kind of dual nature—half anthropology, half poetry—are a staple of postwar street photography, as exemplified by, say Lee Friedlander’s morose self-portraits, taken against the backdrop of American urban blight, or Garry Winogrand’s raucous photographs of press conferences and other media events. But where these photographers play ironically with the familiarity of the settings and events they depict, Solomon photographs scenes that obviously have a significance beyond their dramatic or formal allusiveness, but one which few in her audience will know much about. Moreover, in doing so she uses elements of the style made familiar by her teacher, Lisette Model (and by Model’s most famous pupil, Diane Arbus). This style, based on the use of open flash, black and white film, and a square-format negative, is the photographic equivalent of a stare. Objects are transfixed in the rigidly balanced frame, while the harsh light of the flash flattens out the foreground and separates it from the background. In Solomon’s work this stagy style often makes the scenes she photographs look like dioramas in a natural history museum.

To some extent these pictures satisfy our curiosity about how other people live, but taken out of their cultural context the rituals become merely exotic, titillating because of their foreignness. Some of them are even sensationalistic: the sacrifice of what looks to be a boar or a cow has been photographed just as a sword has severed the animal’s head. Similarly, a Nepalese holy man is shown glaring at the camera, his body contorted into a knot. Others are simply sentimental, for example a photograph of a young girl standing beneath the arms of the statue of a fierce female goddess, in which the shadows of the figure’s outstretched fingers fall across the girl’s face like the bars of a cage.

Despite the exotic nature of their subjects, Solomon’s photographs are firmly rooted in Western culture, and in particular in the conventions of art photography. On one level they’re like arty National Geographic shots, only without the captions or the stories. They point more to Solomon herself, and the fact of her having been in these situations and made the pictures, than to the events they record. However well-made, in the end these remain tourist photographs.

Charles Hagen