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“Alexandra Solmssen: Recent Work”

Looking through the David Adamson Gallery’s exhibit of recent photographs by Alexandra Solmssen, I thought back to “Women,” last year’s blockbuster Annie Leibovitz show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. I acknowledge that such a connection might seem strange. Solmssen, 32, is just starting her career as a photographer, whereas Leibovitz is not only well-established but also positively famous. Moreover, Leibovitz’s Corcoran show—like much of her output over the years—trafficked heavily in celebrity images, whereas Solmssen focuses on women who, to most viewers at least, are anonymous. And, unlike much of Leibovitz’s multihued oeuvre, Solmssen’s works consist largely of grainy grays and blacks.

Even so, the two photographers do display some similarities. Both Solmssen and Leibovitz portray a range of women in a variety of posed settings. And both favor gigantic prints notable for their almost painterly feel. Naturally, Solmssen’s photographs, mostly shot in a basement in Mount Pleasant, aren’t the elaborate productions that Leibovitz favors. But, given the tools she has to work with, Solmssen does a remarkably good job of teasing an assortment of different moods from her sitters.

Solmssen was born in Brazil (a country that is also home to her favorite photographer, the documentarian Sebastião Salgado). But aside from a stint at art school in Philadelphia, Solmssen grew up and worked in Washington until moving earlier this year to Brooklyn. Her Adamson exhibit—which benefits greatly from the gallery’s clean lines and high ceilings—is less a unified whole than a gathering of different photographic approaches.

Some of Solmssen’s most striking offerings come from a series of images that feature nude women whom the artist refers to, enigmatically, as “comfort girls.” Historically, the term refers to the women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military in World War II, but Solmssen’s photographs seem to have nothing to do with that.

These high-contrast (and very big: Some are as large as 45-by-45 inches) images oscillate between shrouded darks and in-your-face highlights, exuding a glitzy vibe that fits somewhere between those of the fashion runway and the Studio 54 dance floor. The Comfort Girls I, for instance, shines such a bright spotlight in viewers’ faces that many will be tempted to squint and move around the photograph in a vain attempt to get a clearer view of its shadowy women. Beyond its almost solarized look, The Comfort Girls I is most notable for its strong yellow glint. That color is achieved through Solmssen’s application of a special oil-based paint to the developed silver print—a technique she has been using off and on since the beginning of her career.

The purest examples of Solmssen’s hybrid of photography and painting can be seen in a very different set of works: Mimi (Star) and Mimi (June). Both images were made in 1995 and feature a nude woman who wears her hair in a long braid. What’s most notable is how Solmssen, through the subtle application of paint, has transformed these two photographs into works that pay homage to master painters John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler.

These works lack the visual precision one expects from photographs, even artsy ones; the details of Solmssen’s Mimi images, such as the studio’s back wall and the model’s skin, have a fuzzy, indistinct look, as if they had been rendered with a brush rather than a camera. Mimi (Star)—a Japanese-flavored work featuring a solitary woman with her back to the camera—could, in Whistlerian fashion, be fairly redubbed Arrangement in Gray and Black. Mimi (June) is somewhat less successful; the model’s hairstyle and bearing seem too modern to keep up the 19th-century façade.

Most of the other works in the show are unpainted photographs; primarily nudes, some are small and intimate—no larger than 6 inches square—and others are as large as the Comfort Girls images. The smaller-scale nudes Evan I and Evan II investigate the abstract curves of the female body, calling to mind the images of Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Tina Modotti, though Solmssen’s palette is somewhat muddier.

Eliza, a much bigger photograph, is one of Solmssen’s best nudes—a woman leaning away from the camera in low light. The model, whose body looks oddly proportioned through Solmssen’s lens, was shot in the moody, grainy style of a boudoir photograph; emotionally, the piece’s drama is far quieter than the frenetic, brightly lit Comfort Girls series. (Another photograph, Alexa, is shot in a similar style but is much less impressive, perhaps because the standing—and clothed—model seems much more static.)

A cluster of six small photographs—five Michelles and one Eliza—is perhaps the steamiest of Solmssen’s series. These inky images were shot in a space that resembles a low-rent motel room; the figures’ outlines are jumpy, making the pieces look almost like double exposures. The best of this group depicts a woman lying in bed, a bright ridge of light outlining her back. Solmssen turns the woman’s body into a smooth and empty landscape; the deep, dark void of a foreground recedes into what could easily pass for a moonlit sand dune as photographed by Ansel Adams.

Four very different images—Moonflower I, II, III, and IV—depict actual, rather than figurative, landscapes. The photographs, seemingly taken from a window, capture ribbony, phone-cord-like branches in a purposely unfocused fashion. They reminded me of the curlicued stems that 20th-century American photographer Harry Callahan sometimes shot. But Callahan’s backdrop was usually pure-white snow; Solmssen, by contrast, captures her helical forms in the same grainy grays that dominate her other images. So gray is the Moonflower series that it’s hard to believe it was shot in Washington rather than some polluted, deserted Rust Belt locale.

Although not all of Solmssen’s photographs are equally impressive—and despite the fact that female nudes aren’t exactly photography’s most original subject matter—many of her works are fresh and worthwhile. Yet, mulling over her exhibit, I strained to find a unifying theme beyond the obvious ones of femininity and sensuality. Is there, I wondered, some larger point she’s trying to make? Should we assume that the variety of women who make an appearance in Solmssen’s work—clubbing voguers, sweaty sexpots, pensive window-gazers—are intended to represent women’s multifaceted nature? Or was I missing something?

When I asked Solmssen about this in an interview, she said that she doesn’t make her art to fit some overarching intellectual theory. The women in the photographs are acquaintances, not professional models hired to fulfill a particular vision. (The “comfort girls” are, in fact, a set of sisters she’s friends with.) The poses her models struck, furthermore, were a blend of Solmssen’s suggestions and

the women’s own improvisations. In sum, Solmssen said, her photographs reflect something “intensely personal.”

I was relieved to learn that Solmssen, at a relatively young age, has enough self-confidence to defy contemporary art’s tendency toward overintellectualization and instead express something so simple and private. Solmssen’s images can be enjoyed for their shapes and their shadings alone; for photographs so aesthetically stimulating, that’s a relief indeed. CP