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Book Review: Got to Go


Book Review Got to Go By Rosalind Fox Solomon Reviewed by Blake Andrews Rosalind Fox Solomon's Got To Go is not a happy book. It's humorous, yes. But happy? No. In fact most readers may find it depressing. And — trigger warning alert — if you suffered from domineering parents or a browbeaten childhood, it will perhaps be even more unsettling. On the positive side, such readers may find catharsis amidst the tragicomedy. I suspect Solomon has.

Got to Go. By Rosalind Fox SolomonMack, 2016.
 
Got to Go
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Got to Go
Photographs by Rosalind Fox Solomon
Mack, London, England, 2016. 144 pp., 79 black-and-white illustrations, 8x9¾".


Rosalind Fox Solomon's Got To Go is not a happy book. It's humorous, yes. But happy? No. In fact most readers may find it depressing. And — trigger warning alert — if you suffered from domineering parents or a browbeaten childhood, it will perhaps be even more unsettling. On the positive side, such readers may find catharsis amidst the tragicomedy. I suspect Solomon has.

The book's photographs are paced with staccato bursts of text. After a few initial captions of interior monologue — seeming to presage a Bill Owens style cultural critique — these texts morph into outright personal insults. The titular poem, for example:

mother says I say you! got to go? GO OUTSIDE. IF YOU ACT LIKE A DOG LIVE LIKE A DOG.

Another example:

mother says PUT A SMILE ON YOUR FACE GO BACK TOMORROW YOU'LL BE FINE.
These excerpts are typical. It's one maternal scolding to another. Roughly halfway through the book the other parent gets in on the act, but there's no letup as the bad memories fly.

father lays me over his knees and spanks me hard as he can.

Mother says to father: I'D LIKE TO STICK A RED-HOT POKER UP YOUR REAR END.
Got to Go. By Rosalind Fox SolomonMack, 2016.

I'm not a psychologist, just an everyday photo buff. But from where I sit, some deeply rooted trauma is being explored, and perhaps exorcised. One might expect an octogenarian (Solomon recently turned 86) to have put such difficult memories to rest — or maybe leveraged them into an uplifting moral? — but for Solomon the demon wrestling continues. She writes that "the original idea behind the texts was to excavate parts of my childhood." Combining memories, song extracts, poems, and "a cacophony of remembered voices," they are abrasive, absurd, upsetting, and sometimes funny.

Got to Go. By Rosalind Fox SolomonMack, 2016.

The text is jarring but it's not even the main attraction. That role goes to Solomon's photographs, and it's here that the Got To Go comes into its own. Although she's flown under the radar for years, Solomon is one of our best contemporary portraitists. She's a Guggenheim winner and a photographer's photographer, but until 2003 had not published a major monograph. Now she's fast making up for lost time. Got To Go is her second Mack title in three years. The pictures here, selected from a three-decade period between the mid-seventies and the mid-oughts, are consistently brilliant, and occasionally as disturbing as the accompanying texts.

Solomon's style has been remarkably steady over time. She makes square medium format black-and-white portraits from close range in the rough style of Mary Ellen Mark or Larry Fink. Nothing in the frame can hide from Solomon's keen eye, often backed by her flash, and the resulting portraits have the same unflinching honesty as the photos of Arbus and Model — under whom she studied for six years. Cruel and unflattering? Yes, maybe, but also revelatory in their candor. A boy crying in front of his birthday cake, a woman with caricatured clown eyelashes, a woman smiling as she applies a strange instrument to her companion's buttocks. Such photos are not the portraits one might commission for hire. There is something slightly off about each, and that applies to the entire book. The photos are sharp, and not often nice.

Got to Go. By Rosalind Fox SolomonMack, 2016.

So we have prickly photos hung on a scaffolding of demeaning texts. Even without book in hand, you can probably see where this is headed. Got To Go inhabits a strange netherworld between the demented and real, part fiction, part memory, and pulled by its photographic essence into documentary fact. Dolls and amputees repeat as subject matter. Thumbing the pages one begins to wonder if the model isn't Arbus after all, but instead Les Krims? For, like Making Chicken Soup, Got To Go is quite gendered. The first several dozen images depict females, sometimes in the company of men but more often alone. Males make an appearance later in a secondary role, along with many iterations of couples, or perhaps "couplings" is a more accurate term for the awkward pairs which appear in the book's latter half. "I love being taken care of" says a woman being squeezed by her male boxing partner. Another image shows party socialites staring in different directions. An obese couple clutches awkwardly. On the whole Solomon seems openly skeptical of the male-female dynamic. Even a nude couple embracing in a cornfield — a seeming edenic caricature of love — in Solomon's hands bears a whiff of menace. I suppose it all feeds back into the complications of childhood, maternalism, and emotional damage. But again I'm not a psychologist. Just someone who loves these photographs.

Got to Go. By Rosalind Fox SolomonMack, 2016.

I should probably mention the book's strange anachronistic quality. If you stumbled on it in a bookstore the publishing date might be hard to guess. The odd juxtaposition of photos and text suggest the seventies, a period when the humanist urge sometimes pulled together photographs, poems, and odd indentations in freeform ways. The layout, image tonality, and typeface could be sixties or seventies, as could the drab purple cover. With photos sequenced non-chronologically, it's easy to lose all sense of time, easy to forget that Solomon's photographic style itself is an anachronism. Whether it's a dated look or an undated one is hard to say, but somehow the timing is skewed. The only nod to contemporary design is the book's unusual dust-jacket, a sort of quasi-bellyband covering all but the top three centimeters of the book. It's certainly novel, yet having never seen a dust-jacket quite like this, I'm not sure the function or thinking behind it. In the end it's yet another jarring piece of the puzzle. Like the best photobooks, Got To Go poses more questions than answers, and rewards repeated visits without ever spilling all its secrets. Happy? No. Beautiful? Yes.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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