Rosalind Fox Solomon is one of my favorite photographers. Her ability to move between various communities, her access to people from all manner of backgrounds, and her ability to get open, honest expressions and gestures is incredible.
Liberty Theater collects images taken in the deep south—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and D.C.—between 1974 and 2000. Decaying plantations, white folks, black folks, rich folk, poor folk, all engaged in the various activities of American life: middle management and bottom-rung labor, making music in churches and living rooms, going to the salon, making love, families hanging out in basements, on porches or patios, outside the family home, single- or doublewide. Unless they’re engaged in some kind of fun (singing together or getting their hair did), most everyone appears wildly unhappy, dissatisfied, put upon, suspicious, as is the case with most of Fox Solomon’s work (that I’ve seen, anyway).
At first, I missed the little snippets of text found in THEM and Got to Go, but after looking again (and again) and reading through Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, I get it. “Liberty Theater” was the name of a non-whites-only movie theater in Chattanooga, owned by Fox Solomon’s family. Liberty Theater is, more or less, identical to “security theater.” While we all play at “liberty and justice for all,” we all, deep down, know it to be a lie, yet we all perform our little parts, in whatever way we’re able.
In one picture, an older couple, a white man and an African American woman recline on a beach, obviously very happy together. In the next, a bitter looking middle-aged white woman holds up a long-barrelled rifle, her mouth curled into an almost snarl. Flip the page and a downcast middle-aged white man with a curious almost-smile on his face has his arm around a slightly younger-looking African American woman. Her expression haunts; I can’t read it at all. And the whole book runs like this, alternately inviting and repulsing, frightening, maddening, depressing. A young woman mugs for the camera in a salon; a young African American man looks like he’s been shot in the face with buckshot, eye swollen shut and dozens of small black scabs all over the right side of his face, nose, and forehead. A group of wealthy-looking older white people sing in a church garden, maybe during a wedding; a naked, interracial gay couple intertwine on a waterbed. A middle aged white guy dressed in period Civil War garb, complete with sword, sits cross legged on the floor, holding a tiny model of a Civil War general aloft like a precious jewel.
Where did Fox Solomon find all these people? How did she get these expressions on film? Some of it looks like street photography, things just come across, but most of it appears posed, like she spent some time with the people and just waited for the right moment. Fox Solomon’s sense of timing and talent for disarming people from all kinds of backgrounds is amazing, and she’s been at it for a good 40 years or more.
Overall, I give Liberty Theater an outstanding 4.5 stars.