Rosalind Solomon's camera penetrates a private reality rarely seen by fastidious 20th-Century eyes. Her Third World subjects include a Peruvian shepherdess nursing a motherless lamb, two shamans from that same country conducting a seance, and a yogi balled-up like a hairy pretzel on the floor of a filthy hovel in Nepal.
Yet Solomon, whose powerful and revealing images are on exhibit at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park to June 1, is reticent to unveil her own inner world.
"It's very hard to verbalize the process," she said when asked how she captured the intimate views. "You're asking me to give you my soul. . . . I do put my soul into these situations."
Solomon did, however, go on to discuss the work in "Rosalind Solomon: Earthrites." She was at the photographic museum on a brief visit from her home in New York City.
The 88 black-and-white images on exhibit depict indigenous peoples, many untouched by modernization or materialism, in rural villages of Peru, Guatemala and Nepal and urban India. Viewers are made privy to a legless beggar with only one arm, a primitive funeral and a communal bathing scene where men, women and children are squashed together in a milky wash.
Yet Solomon's vision is not morbid, nor do her works elicit pity. Arthur Ollman, executive director of the Museum of Photographic Arts, writes in an exhibition catalogue that she "records the living and the dead but never the defeated or the fully damned."
Solomon, 56, started creating the images in "Earthrites" during a working vacation in Guatemala in 1978. "I was just so attracted to the landscape and fascinated by the people," she said, "that I began to do the same things I had been doing here in the South" (where she photographed in the "hinterlands" of Tennessee and elsewhere). "I just approached people on their farms and in their houses, and asked if I could talk to them and photograph them.
"When you're traveling in the highlands of Guatemala, you feel very close to the earth, just as the people are close to the earth, and I felt I was able to shed some of the confinements of my own life and culture." At the same time, "I felt I could be more in touch with myself there. Though my main interest is in exploring and discovering the world, it's also in expressing myself. That's the only reason I care about being a photographer, to be expressive; the rest is just a craft."
So, after her first monthlong trip, Solomon made three more trips to Guatemala until 1985. During that time, she also worked in Peru, Nepal and India. She traveled with native guides and her Hasselblad 2-inch camera by burro or pickup truck, once rooming with nuns. In India, with grants from the American Institute of Indian Studies, she photographed religious festivals in Calcutta and in the remote northern cities of Kulu and Kangra. Last year, she visited Kashmir and Ladakh.
"One of my interests is how people cope with their lives, their struggles and problems," said Solomon, who always has chosen people as a predominant focus. "That's what led me to photograph the religious festivals, as well as shamans, witches and yogis."
One "Earthrite" photograph taken during an Indian festival shows a dark-skinned beauty caught in a frenzied crowd, smiling without a trace of rancor toward an intruding Westerner. It, like Solomon's other works, belies a tangible and intimate rapport between the artist and her subjects. How did a woman of the '80s achieve this rapport with those who had perhaps never been outside their own villages or seen a tourist?
Solomon responded by citing a line of explanatory script from a wall of the Balboa Park gallery: "I am an explorer. I travel and photograph to push beyond the narrow scope of my life. As I work, I hope to connect emotionally and intensely with my subjects."
"That says it all," Solomon said, but elaborated, "I think it has to do with feeling quite unprotected and vulnerable myself in these intimate situations, and I was interested in the people and they were interested in me. Also I suspect the fact that I'm a woman, a mature woman, probably made it easier for me. Then on certain trips, I was there with people associated with the church. That helped too; I was properly introduced."
Solomon was introduced to professional photography at 38, later bolstered by the knowledge that French photographer Atget began at 40. Studies with Lisette Model (who taught Larry Fink, Diane Arbus, Eva Rubinstein and others) on and off from 1974 to 1976 in Tennessee preceded further work in the South, Washington and finally New York. She will open an exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art in July.
Creating portraits of "anyone who interests me" is Solomon's current preoccupation. Though her new subjects, like Mexico City photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, may live in metropolitan centers, she said her work in underdeveloped countries prepared her well for the project.
"I want to do portraits that are more about the innerness of a person that the outerness. To do that, I still have to put myself into an unprotected state--that's when the best things happen. I've learned a lot about reaching that state through my travels and experiences with people I've photographed in 'Earthrites.' "