Masks and metaphors: Rosalind Fox Solomon’s "Hallowe’en"
On October 31, 1977, American photographer Rosalind Fox Solomon accompanied a friend to a costume party in Georgia. Camera in hand, she captured a portrait of a very typical Halloween scene: small children, a scary clown, and adults joining in on the fun. At the time, the photograph was simply a reflection of Solomon’s surroundings – “more or less what I was seeing in that particular moment in time,” she says. Forty-one years later, however, the work has taken on a different tone. From thematic parallels to political narratives, Hallowe’en (1977) reveals the fascinating story of the photographer's practice and the meaning of her work in the context of our culture and climate today.
Fox Solomon was born in Highland Park, Illinois, in 1930. After graduating from Maryland’s Goucher College with a degree in Political Science, she moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she married and raised two children. It wasn’t until she was 38 years old that Fox Solomon seriously began exploring photography. In her early work, she photographed battered and expressive dolls at flea markets as a means of practicing portraiture. By the early 1970s, she began studying under Lisette Model in New York and eventually was taking portraits of fellow artists and eminent politicians, notably President Jimmy Carter, Senator Jennings Randolph and Congressman Jack Brooks. In the years that followed, Fox Solomon would travel the world, including to India, South Africa, Ireland and Vietnam, to create metaphorically-rich, sometimes violence-laden images. Her photography centered around scenes of struggle, survival, ritual, religion and daily life, both at home in the United States and abroad. From the late 1970s, comments Ann Thomas, Acting Head Curator at the National Gallery of Canada, "she starts to forge a more independent vocabulary and to draw upon subject matter that seems in part driven by a desire to understand her own culture within the context of others". Today, her work resides in over 50 museums and has been exhibited in 30 solo exhibitions around the world.
The Hallowe’en photograph, although originally a depiction of a typical domestic scene, today finds a special place in Fox Solomon’s diverse portfolio of black and white images. Not only does it fall within her collection of ritual-themed works, but the presence of the large and looming clown forms part of her interest in concealed faces. From carnivals in Guatemala to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Fox Solomon has continued to be fascinated by masked and makeuped faces. “I like the symbolisms and metaphors that they represent,” she says. “They are a way of hiding. A way of creatively masking what’s going on beneath the surface.” Although she didn’t always seek out these themes, Fox Solomon admits that they emerged organically as she reflects back upon her body of work.
The figures in this photograph find their place in their immediate surroundings – something Fox Solomon has been known to do in her various portraits of faces in places. “When Solomon photographs people, she tends to let surrounding still life objects carry at least as much psychological weight in the pictorial experience as the postures or expressions of her human subjects,” writes American curator Jane Livingston. “Solomon sometimes uses her subjects as though they were actually defined by their environment; indeed, they are often virtually expressionless.” This certainly rings true in Hallowe’en, where crumpled newspapers, beadboard walls, quirky wall-hangings and a beer can hold just as much weight in the overall composition as the poker-faced figures within it. Even the staircase railing takes on a narrative, having the appearance of a weapon in the clown’s hand.
This year, the story behind Hallowe’en broadens further with its inclusion in a new publication titled Liberty Theater. Bringing together more than 60 photographs captured by Fox Solomon in the southern United States, the book tells a remarkable story about “class and gender division, implied and overt racism, competing notions of liberty, and lurking violence”. Among the images are several from the National Gallery of Canada’s collection – including "I Wasn’t Assaulted I Was Armed" (2000) and Rabbi Abraham and Lillian Feinstein (1977). Together, the images “do not provide comfort or resolution,” says Fox Solomon. “My pictures and sequences are intended to enable individual interpretation. I want each image to evoke an emotional response that may be unexpected depending on the viewer’s history and experience.”
As for Hallowe’en, “the hovering giant clown may represent a political figure — a long, bare arm threatens, the two children and their parents are disconnected,” she says. Alongside its companions in the photographer’s rich portfolio, Hallowe’en tells an engrossing story much deeper than meets the eye.
Rosalind Fox Solomon's Hallowe'en is one of 72 works by the artist in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article, and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.