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October 27, 2022

Acquisition: Rosalind Fox Solomon's Photographic Series "Portraits in the Time of AIDS"

Rosalind Fox Solomon, "New York", 1987

Rosalind Fox Solomon
New York, 1987
gelatin silver print
image: 80.01 x 80.01 cm (31 1/2 x 31 1/2 in.)
sheet: 108.59 x 101.6 cm (42 3/4 x 40 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Courtesy of Annie and Paul Mahon
2022.55.83

For many decades, American artist Rosalind Fox Solomon (b. 1930) has recorded people and their interactions with one another and their environments. She has photographed around the world and is best known for her richly detailed, humanistic portraits of people struggling and surviving in the face of adversity, particularly her series Portraits in the Time of AIDS (1987–1988). The original set of 85 prints of these unflinching photographs depicting the daily lives of men, women, and children with the disease has recently been given to the National Gallery of Art by Annie and Paul Mahon. These works present a poignant and compassionate record of a fraught time, when fear, not facts, dominated the response to the epidemic.

Fox Solomon began to photograph at age 38, and it became her life's passion. As she has recalled, "I felt that photography was something that belonged to me, that nobody could take it away from me. I felt that I could say anything I wanted with it, and I didn't have to hold myself back. I could be totally honest. And that’s how I've always tried to be with it, right from the beginning." Fox Solomon studied with the legendary photographer Lisette Model, who challenged her students to boldly confront their subjects, recording the physical and emotional impact of modern life.

Fox Solomon's empathetic approach is articulated in Portraits in the Time of AIDS, one of her most celebrated bodies of work. Following earlier pictures made in a hospital in Chattanooga in the 1970s and portraits taken in nursing homes in Peru and Mexico in the 1980s, she felt an urgent need to portray those suffering during the AIDS crisis. As the illness ravaged the gay community in the late 1980s, Fox Solomon photographed not only its physical symptoms, but also the isolation and prejudice experienced by those touched by the virus. She also captured the love and care of family and friends, conveyed by a hug, a kiss, or a hand being held.

When she began the project, Fox Solomon attended weekly dinners for those with AIDS at Saint Peter's Church in the hope that she could persuade some attendees to be photographed. She remembers that there were many lively conversations and copious chatter about doctors and medications, but there "was little talk of death; the tone, the words were life." Soon she began photographing her new friends, not at the church, but in their homes and, somewhat later, in hospitals. Although on previous projects she had worked in silence, Fox Solomon describes these sessions as filled with touching interchanges between herself and her subjects. Most of the portraits are of gay men, but she also sought out women and children to document the widespread and devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic.

Fox Solomon's work has been shown in nearly 30 solo exhibitions and 100 group exhibitions and is in the collections of over 50 museums worldwide.

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