Welcome to the Scottsboro Fair in Alabama: in the early 1970s, this monthly event brought together farmers and locals for several days. People would buy, sell, and stroll around the booths. Some slept on mattresses in the back of their vehicles, others waited around for a shopper interested in their bric-a-brac. Whichever way you look, there are people: girls wearing frills, women with curlers in their hair, men in suspenders…
This market was Rosalind Fox Solomon’s playground for many years. During Paris Photo, MUUS, a private collection that preserves the work of many photographers, honors the American artist, born in 1930, by exhibiting some 60 prints from her very first series.
“At Scottsboro, I didn’t ask anyone any questions and they didn’t ask me any. I was happy just watching them, and would only make sure it was ok to take their picture,” recalls the energetic Solomon. “I’m sure some people thought I was crazy with my cameras and my photographer’s vest. I was in my 40s, I wasn’t a kid. On reflection, I think that made my job easier, as did the fact that I was a woman. Because women are perceived as being more benign, even though I wasn’t any more benign than a man, at least not the way I photographed.”
High-angle shots, low-angle shots: Rosalind Fox Solomon does not try to sublimate her subjects. To treacly glamour, she prefers proximity. “Her photographic language is well developed and identifiable,” notes Nathalie Herschdorfer, historian of photography, director of Photo Élysée, and the exhibition curator. It was her choice to focus on Solomon’s early work, produced between 1972 and 1976, in the heyday of American street photography.
The influence of Lisette Model
A contemporary of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, Solomon has had an atypical career. “I got into photography at the age of thirty-eight: by accident, during a trip.” Until then, she had led a steady family life in Tennessee, with her husband and two children. Barely ten years later, in 1978, some of her photographs were included in the MoMA collection. In the meantime, she enjoyed the support of Lisette Model, Diane Arbus’s teacher, who was shown Solomon’s photographs by a mutual acquaintance.
“I would see her off and on, when I accompanied my husband on his trips to New York. I would bring her my work and she would critique it. She would tell me to go in closer, for example. On my contact sheets, she would always choose the most extreme images.” Encouraged by her elder, Solomon developed her style, refined her gaze, cultivated human interest through portraiture.
“This Scottsboro series is fascinating,” says Nathalie Herschdorfer. “Rosalind Fox Solomon had set herself the task of taking images in that location. She was not preparing a book or an exhibition, she was not working on commission. She worked for herself alone.” In the artist’s archives the curator first became aware of the scope of this foundational project which had generated hundreds of photos.
“It’s a question that interests me as a historian of photography: how does such a distinctive style come about? Is it something that comes together gradually or is it there from the beginning?” The prints she drew from the project’s archives (none of which were made for the exhibition) provide an answer: “The direct approach, the way she looks at her fellow human beings, the choice of people who have particular expressions or ways of standing. It’s all there already!”
“Rosalind Fox Solomon: The Early Work”, exhibition, MUUS Collection, Paris Photo, Grand Palais Éphémère, November 10 to 13, 2022.
To learn more, visit the Julian Sander Gallery at Paris Photo, featuring a Solomon’s second solo show which includes works spanning her whole career, such as Portraits in the Time of AIDS (1987–1988).