Shooting Israel / An Inner Voice, in Black and White

In this fast-paced age of digital photography, Rosalind Solomon, 81, develops her work in a darkroom and is not bothered about being a 'dinosaur.'

In the fourth decade of her life, at an age when established photographers are usually at the height of their careers, Rosalind Solomon discovered her passion for photography. In 1968, at the age of 38, Solomon felt the time had come for a change. She decided to take a break from life back home with her husband and children, and flew from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Tokyo, Japan.

Under the auspices of an international organization that she worked for in the United States, which promoted cultural exchanges, she was hosted by a Japanese family during her stay of a few months. Solomon said she had grown up feeling "that the real me belonged somewhere else," and in Japan she finally discovered "that I was in a community with myself. I realized how gratifying it was to be in touch with this inner voice, which I didn't even know I had," as she remarked later. That inner voice has been accompanying her ever since, along with the camera lens and a love of photography, wherever she goes.

Rosalind Solomon
Rosalind Solomon

Solomon bought her first camera, a Japanese Nikkormat, in 1969. When she returned to the United States, she began photographing intensively, first in the American South, and later in Washington, D.C., where her husband headed the General Services Administration under President Jimmy Carter. Afterward she traveled farther, to more exotic destinations such as Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, India, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Cuba and elsewhere.

"At first I didn't have a clue as to where it might take me. It was years before I began thinking of myself as an artist," she says.

Her first professional project involved a series of pictures of battered old dolls that she took in a marketplace in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1972: "There were old dolls thrown randomly on the tables. They were in varying degrees of deterioration and disarray ... [and also] were hung on the back of pick-up trucks. The dolls gave me opportunity to develop techniques for photographing people. I learned to go very close to them. I related the crazed and broken dolls to interior emotions. The 'glamour' dolls were the cosmetic versions of life."

For Solomon the camera was a means of connecting with her surroundings, she wrote later. "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."

A sense of adventure, natural curiosity and a willingness to take risks - wherever she worked - have made Solomon one of the most interesting photographers working in the United States today. "My life as a photographer opens the world to me. I expand my knowledge and understanding wherever I work," she said in an interview.

In 1984 Solomon divorced her husband and moved to New York. She already had quite a few well-acclaimed works and exhibitions under her belt - among them the series "Outside the White House," which documented politicians and artists in Washington, as well as photos of village life and native rituals in Guatemala, from the late 1970s.

She opened a studio in Manhattan's East Village. In explaining her reason for moving to New York she referred in an interview to the words of her mentor, American photographer Lisette Model, who taught her an iron rule: "You are an artist. You must be selfish and not give too much time to others."

In 1988 she had a remarkable solo show in New York entitled: "Rosalind Solomon: Portraits in the Time of AIDS." The exhibition featured pictures of 27 HIV carriers photographed over a period of 10 months. "My goal was to reveal ... aspects of the human struggle to survive," she said at the time. During a period when HIV carriers were seen as lepers, Solomon succeeded in documenting their lives, rather than their deaths. The objective she set for herself, she explained, was to avoid documenting AIDS "victims" and "people at risk," and to present their other, stronger sides.

Solomon still shoots only in black-and-white film. "My challenge is not format or color, but deepening my perception and range of ideas. I am interested in making expressive pictures. Black-and-white pictures work for me as poetry and metaphor in a way that color does not. I have tried color and I have tried digital. Neither gives me the sense of depth that I feel with black-and-white," she said in an interview some six years ago.

"There was a period when I thought I was a dinosaur. Everyone began using digital photography and I felt that my way of working belongs to history, and that it's too traditional and no one will be interested in me as before," she says now. "But see, there is a renewed appreciation for my kind of work - in darkrooms. I prefer to go on developing my pictures, in black and white, in my studio, by myself."

Solomon had visited Israel several times, and last year she arrived to participate in Frederic Brenner's photography project, "Shooting Israel." At 81, she was the oldest in the group. It was her first time taking part in a group project of this sort, and alongside some of the world's best photographers. At first Solomon says she felt somewhat "protective" of herself around them, and also worried that Israel would not provide enough photogenic subjects to go around. Later on she found her place, and settled down to work.

The picture that appears here was taken at a checkpoint in Jenin, after the actor Juliano Mer-Khamis was murdered last April. Solomon went there with the help of photographer Miki Kratsman, who put her in touch with a friend who lives in the city's refugee camp. While she was out photographing, Mer-Khamis was shot to death - a five-minute walk away. "I will never forget that. People were in despair," she says.

Nevertheless, Solomon also had "good experiences" in Jenin. "I wanted very much to experience Palestinian culture, as I had not known it before," she says, of her decision to photograph the city in the northern West Bank. "I took pictures of families, I did portraits."

Her stay in Israel was stressful, however: "I read the papers and know what goes on here. A lot of things trouble me. There are such complex problems here and we don't know how they will be resolved," Solomon observes. "People here are very stressed out. It is a natural outcome for anyone who lives in this reality. There is a great fear here of the future and desire for a normal life. I guess that is what everyone wants."

The "Shooting Israel" project, she says, is supposed to help people understand the reality here. "As it is, it's hard for people to understand what's going on here. Maybe through the variety of pictures [we create], we will be able to give them a few insights."

When asked about her work process, Solomon hesitates for a moment. "It is not characteristic for me to talk about my work. I've traveled a lot all over the world, and I never liked talking about it. If the pictures do not speak for themselves, then my talking is meaningless." When pressed further, she agrees to say a bit more: "The pictures reflect how I felt and what was felt toward me and what happened in that moment. I capture the moment. Sometimes I don't know the subjects. Sometimes I don't speak with them at all. I don't say to people, 'Smile.' I like the tension in the shoots. I don't know what my pictures will say to people. Different people will interpret them differently."