An interview with the 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the Marti Friedlander Photographic Award.
How would you describe your work?
I find myself hesitant to narrow my approach down to a fixed mode or set of signifiers. When making work I'm attempting to draw from a wide, and hopefully not too shallow, pond. This is because I really don't know what's going to make a good photograph. And so, I have to take chances, and I enjoy taking chances. I enjoy it when I'm surprised, irritated or beguiled by an image to the point where it's almost like a mild form of Stockholm Syndrome. A successful image for me so often has an unknown quality, that kind of irks you to-the-point where you become enamoured with it. That's when an image really functions well.
It's almost like you're capturing elements in our daily lives that we don't see.
When getting into the ability of photography to elevate the everyday I am thinking about the processes of transforming the mundane through casual opportunism, good observation and decisive timing.
We're very lucky in New Zealand to have a lineage of strong and diverse approaches to the medium of photography. Driven by a long list of artists who have all been able to view and articulate the world in a completely different way. This history becomes relevant to my interests with Gary Baigent, John Fields and Marti Friedlander in the 1960’s, and only gets more exciting in the decades that proceed it. I am heavily indebted to and aware of this lineage and take great enjoyment from the invocations of these photographers and their ways of seeing.
Some of your photography is more stylised than the rest.
Definitely, and it is all driven by the narratives that are present in the images or the context they are placed in. With much of the early work I produced (bar the self-portraits), I was using photography in a relatively straight and representative way of recording the people I came across while walking and skateboarding around my neighbourhood. These images were for my own mental records as much as trying to make a good photograph and so stylistically they are fairly consistent front and centre portraits.
However, as the publishing of books became my primary focus, the ability to expand narratives across 30 or 40 images was a revelation (actually, I remember thinking that 64 images in a book was the perfect number). As this interest developed, I found myself making pictures that could act as grammatical notes, (a comma, a pause, a full stop etc). Stylistically things became softer and far more open to the unexpected nuances that occur through sequence, pairing and scale.
Did you ever question if you wanted to become an artist?
I am fortunate to have been raised in a family that is very supportive of the arts, and always encouraged me to explore and express myself however I could. However, it is still something of a surprise to myself that I ended up in the arts. It snuck up on me. I never questioned whether I wanted to be an artist or not, I wanted to do well in something. I wanted to make good decisions and be engaged with the world.
I went to high school at Western Springs College and although I was surrounded by highly creative peers (many of whom are still very active in a creative field) I didn’t study photography or many art subjects except graphic design.
I remember I got together with a friend and started a school surf team as an attempt to attain some of the study breaks the rugby team was afforded. And it wasn’t until one day after a surf, this same friend casually suggested that we could drop out after six form and go to study graphic design. The following year, (thanks to Miriam Harris for letting me in) I started at Unitec. I was 17 and all of a sudden had this huge life shift. I was totally out of my depth, surrounded not by surfers and school friends but by older artists who all seemed to have such a resolve. I was attempting to make sense of all this, and design nice posters, and then I was given a camera.
How did you feel when you got the phone call letting you know about the Laureate Award?
Shocked. I’d have to really mine my vocabulary for a long time to try and work out the right words to describe what I am feeling. It’s funny, the first thing that came to mind was to liken the feeling to when I’ve discovered the work of an artist that blew me away. I remember the first time I saw Peter Black’s Moving Pictures and was freaked out that someone could make such excellent observations of humanity from a moving car. Or Marie Shannon’s domestic interiors that somehow contained what felt like a whole novel in three stitched together prints. The experience of viewing works like those filled me with such enthusiasm for the medium that all I wanted to do was to go out and make my own pictures. Receiving the call about the Laureate Award gave me that same feeling.
I actually missed the call, I was working in a garden and found a voice message on my phone saying: "Hi Solomon, it's Garth Gallaway here, give me a call". I thought, well he knows my name so it’s not a misdial or someone thinking I’m a demolition expert (which my number seems to be also listed somewhere as), so I googled his name and found out he is a Partner at Chapman Tripp. And now I was thinking, OK, this is either going to be very good or very bad. So that was a massive relief and emotionally a very tense experience.
When did you start making books?
In 2010 I began printing my visual diaries, which are a classic requirement of an undergraduate tertiary arts qualification. They are used as a form of evidence of your influences and experiments, really to try and show that you've been productive. And to prove you have been maintaining all this productivity requires a lot of sticky tape and glue sticks. So, I saw printing them as a way to save time and handwriting practice. And I figured that I could improve on page layouts because I had just completed a year of graphic design, so I knew how to use InDesign. I discovered this to be so convenient that I began printing booklets almost monthly. They would include all of my latest images that met a standard, and served to remind me of what I'd been doing and how the images worked at scale and also with each other. These early books were almost always printed in an edition of one or two, and were really just for myself. They would have titles of ’scans July', 'scans March', and I'd take them to the copy centre at Unitec and print them out on terrible cream paper and bind them with a Fastback strip.
Doing this also taught me how surprising images can sometimes be, because what works as a standalone image, can be really different to what works in sequence. So you find pictures becoming crucial that would be normally be really left-field and strange, almost outtakes. And these images often serve as a bit of glue that holds the narrative together.
Listening to you speak and hearing about your books, it sounds like the storytelling and the narrative is really important?
Absolutely. Our whole culture is built upon story telling isn’t it? The desire to communicate, especially through books, continues to be my greatest challenge and also brings me so much enjoyment. I remember in 2012 I made a little book for Zahra (Solomon's partner & collaborator), as a way to try and entice her into a romantic relationship because I thought that would be really attractive.
What did she think?
Oh, it worked really well. We started seeing each other and three or four months later I moved in with her on my 21st birthday.
How did you meet each other?
In 2010 Zahra needed someone to film her doing a dance performance and her father, who is good friends with my father, suggested that I had a good camera that could film things. So, she got in touch and I agreed, and I remember being so mesmerised. I hadn’t seen any contemporary dance before, and it was fantastic. So, I did the filming and she said thanks and that was that. Then a year later, she called me again and said, "I've got another show, can you photograph it again". "Yeah, I guess so, it was really good last time, sure.”
Then I didn't hear from her for another year. And I was thinking, cool well this is just the way of it then. I thought she was this amazing woman who was so good at what she did. I had never seen anything like it. It was 2010 when I first photographed her, and it was 2012 when we got together, because she had lost some files and needed them again, so we had another coffee, and it went really well. So, our relationship came from photographing her performances.
When you went overseas?
We started seeing each other romantically in August, then in September I went to Europe for three months to look at photography. Which was another experience of significant impact.
Do you consider yourself a writer?
Not really. Although in my books writing is often a crucial component. I do enjoy writing when I get the chance, although I am usually driven by a purpose when I do. I reckon that it’s a very helpful to my practise to work in different mediums and with different methods. Recently I have been having great fun collaborating with an artist Cass Power, who is experienced in working across mediums and those works so far have had a good energy around them.
So how do you work in collaboration together?
We mainly photograph each other in attempts to make ‘good photography’ and I imagine it will be presented as a book filled with many failed attempts and a few good surprises.
Tell me about your book ‘Many Things Were Not In The Fantasy’
With this book, I wanted it to have a certain physical flexibility, and I wanted the book to have a certain thickness, so I made a stack of 60gsm paper, which was the thinnest the printer in Taiwan would print on and worked out how many pages it would take to get the right feeling. It was exactly 200 pages in the end. So the book’s design was dictated initially by its physicality. It’s also the second book that I made collaboratively with Zahra and it contains images from our relationship from 2014-2017.
And why the blank pages?
Because of the show-through. With a stock as thin as a 60gsm, even when printed 9% grey, the image leaves a ghost through the page, and I didn’t want to interrupt these ghosts, so there is a double page blank after each double page spread.
Is having a dancer for a partner the perfect muse?
Having a dancer for a partner is fantastic, she is constantly processing the world in such a physical way, which is a great counterpoint to my own strategies. As far as her being a muse, when making work with her, we are working together in such a way that it’s probably more representative to say we are collaborators.
Tell me about the subjects you choose in your work, or you collaborate with?
I think when I began making photographs as an undergraduate, I was really quite worried about what I was doing with my life and where I was going. I was trying to work out what decisions I should be making. What would be a good way to direct my energy? I had this idea, that if I talked to a whole lot of people, that I could hopefully learn something from the decisions that they had made. I just wanted to know what I should be doing really, and the camera is a good vehicle to do that with. But that has changed as I have gotten older and become more focused on an internal dialogue, so I find myself working now quite consciously in a much more subjective way although still working with people I am interested in, and that could be emotionally, intellectually or visually.
Do any of the other photographers you admire make books?
Absolutely. I take great pleasure from having a large library at home of many of my favourite books. As often as possible I try to get overseas to keep myself educated about what the international scene is producing but really my heart is very much with the rich history of New Zealand titles.
Tell me about some of your favourite photographer's books and how they have influenced your work?
It’s hard to know where to begin but Gary Baigent’s The Unseen City is a favourite. Then there is Peter Black’s 50 Photographs catalogue, Bruce Connew’s Muttonbirds, Fiona Clark’s Living with Aids is in pride of place. Haruhiko Sameshima’s Bold Centuries, Edith Amituanai’s ETA, Glenn Busch’s Working Men, Tim Veling’s D.P.O, Peter Peryer’s Second Nature. It would be a very long list to do them all justice, but these are a few that catch my eye from the shelf. Oh, and Andrew Ross’s Fiat Lux was a book I rediscovered last week and it blew me away again.
In Fiona Clark’s work, the way she engages with people through her proximity and through the space she allows them to express themselves in accompanying texts has always come across as so resolved to me. Edith Amituanai is another artist who has found a way to work with her community to develop a practice that is both engaged and elevating, and when her survey show comes up to Auckland, it’s not to be missed. Bruce Connew has also really helped further my education, he has consistently produced dam fine books and has been very generous with his time. Actually, when I think about it I have been so remarkably fortunate to have been able to connect with the artists and photographers that I have, and I very much look forward to continue doing so.
When making photographs, I believe you are drawing from both your conscious memories and even more heavily from your unconscious memories. From all of your lived experiences and from all of your inherited experiences. You're drawing from such a deep pool. And so, when something looks right in the viewfinder and you go click you are re-presenting this knowledge and it’s the nuances of those decisions that make an artist’s view unique and interesting.
Finally, what is art, and why does it matter?
Art balances the culture. It keeps us grounded, and it keeps us informed. A good work can provide a two-way window, to the outside world and to the inside world. It can remind us of who we are, or who we could be. And it can elevate the everyday to a rather enriching experience. Also, personally I think it’s really important here to archive the social landscape in New Zealand through images. And in New Zealand there has been such a strong tradition, so many strong practitioners that have done this for so many generations now that it is something that I want to continue doing and it's something that I want to do well. So, that's why I think it's important to have a practice very much grounded in New Zealand.