“I would be a painter if I had more patience,” Joey admits to me from his bedroom in Brooklyn, “but I don’t, and therefore I love photography.” In one of the first images in his ongoing series Portraits of my Mother, he posed her in a bathroom. She gazes at us with just one eye visible, her arm tucked into a sharp angle that frames her face. She reminds me of a figure in an Egon Schiele sketch.
The colours in this photograph are fantastic and bizarre: the chartreuse towels that hang from the shower rod are reflected in the bathroom vanity, and she blooms through the middle of the frame like a wisteria in her silky purple shirt. But not all of Joey Solomon’s photographs from the series are this colorful. Indeed, most of the work he makes is executed in black and white.
In one of these monochrome images, his mother and brother are embracing. Their faces are visible only as slivers, mirrored in one another. The photograph was made with a long exposure, and I imagine the slightest movements in their bodies as they try impossibly to hold completely still for the camera. I hear the wind blow as they sway silently, cradling one another for a bit longer than feels natural. With the series, Solomon extends that raw moment of gazing a bit too long, holding a bit too close, directing us to the inner lives of he and his mother with energetic intensity. In this interview for LensCulture, he speaks to Lodoe Laura Haines-Wangda about the conception of this project, the issues at the heart of his work and the intimate process of collaboration.
Lodoe Laura Haines-Wangda: I wanted to talk about Portraits of my Mother. How did that project get started?
Joey Solomon: That project’s been going on since 2012. My core being as a photographer are those images, and that project is very long term. I’m a photographer that first and foremost wants to address mental illness. The portraits with my mother—and of my mother—are my reckoning with the fact that she hereditarily has passed onto me ADHD, manic depressive disorder, acute social anxiety disorder and severe depression.
I have four pill bottles on my desk right now and I need to take those nightly. It’s four different medications and that’s forever, just to keep my brain and my functioning stable. Once I became old enough to understand what the medicines meant, I really resented her. At first, I was not even okay with acknowledging that. I resented her for having me as a child and becoming a mother. Knowing that she had all this and knowing that every other member of her family was also severely mentally-afflicted—I thought, Why would you do that to me? Why would you create me?
LLHW: How did it evolve from there?
JS: As I took more photos of her, the photo sessions and the photographs themselves broke so many walls down for us personally. We were able to communicate, be so much closer and more raw with each other after every session. Now every time I make portraits with my mother it’s like pure catharsis, and less about me forgiving her and more about becoming her friend, understanding nuances.
My work with this series of images is really trying to learn something from how she navigates her own life as a mom with all this shit. I have the same shit, and maybe instead of resenting her, I should be like, Wow, you’re a queen. You are so strong and I aspire to be like you. So I have more of an appreciation of her kindness. I’m still analyzing her through our interactions and our behaviours, and I think I always will be analyzing her. But much more, it’s coming from a place of equals, and it’s always going to be evolving. I like that the project started out from a place of me being estranged with her. Over the years, she’s really been a huge supporter of what I’m trying to do visually. So it’s nice—it’s a project to always go back to. It’s my foundation in my long term work of creating representations around the beauty of being mentally ill.
LLHW: This series really has a palpable sense of energy around it, and I think that has a lot to do with your style. Some of the portraits of your mother have a frenetic feeling; these have a candid, snapshot effect, often using hard flash. Other images in the series appear to be made in a more deliberate, considered way—posed for the camera. Can you talk about the different styles you’re employing here, and how they’re working together?
JS: I love that you noticed the freneticness of it. I think it’s the perfect word to describe my work as a whole. And my life. She’s very that. Like, she talks a mile a minute, does not take enough time to inhale and breathe. I’m learning to be more okay every day with how she operates. She can’t calm down and I’m learning that that’s just her, that’s how it is. So of course it’s going to translate into my imagery. Her manic episodes are just as much real life and real beauty as when we’re sitting in total silence, very still in front of a 4x5 camera, waiting for a minute and a half so this exposure goes through in the dark of my childhood bedroom.
I take pictures of her when we’re both feeling the depressed side of what it means to exist. But I also really enjoy when I just have good days with her and I get to shoot on a disposable CVS Flashcam, and I get those pictures of her laughing or grabbing at me or saying something inappropriate. Those mean just as much to me, if not more, in respect to catharsis and getting closer to her, than when I do something posed that I’ve been thinking about for months. I love the spontaneous ones. Those messy, flash photographs I make actually turn out to strike a chord with me. They show the wildness of our relationship, the unpredictability, the unconditional love with chaos.
LLHW: Your photographs point to the intensity and complexities that come with close relationships, and so, it seems to me that your work is also about love. I wonder if you’re ever consciously thinking about love in making your work?
JS: I don’t. I think about love in my daily life, but when it comes to my practice I’m always thinking about being a hoarder; a hoarder of moments and time. I don’t know… It’s less about love and more about pragmatic things for me. I need to document this because time is moving so quickly and my brain is all jumbled. Whether I’m using my iPhone to take pictures or a disposable or my DSLR or my large format, I always want to mark myself to humanity long after I’m gone, with the hope of paving the way for other queers and other people who identify with having a child-minded parent. And still, like, expressing love for that. So I think you’re right that love probably has everything to do with all of my imagery, but it’s never really on my mind when I shoot. Love is woven into my work subconsciously.
LLHW: I first learned about your work through Eren Orbey’s writing in The New Yorker. In Orbey’s feature, he talks about a diagnostic gaze in your pictures. I wonder what you think of that assessment?
JS: I sometimes have repeating motifs that, purposely or unpurposely, I go back to. It’s this way of me reaching out to solve a repeating problem and story, right? So in a way, I’m trying to, like, be this narrator and diagnose exactly why I’ve come to the place that I am in. I’m often creating a portrait of me via other things, whether it be a tree or another human or my actual body. I think I’m always trying to diagnose how I can identify myself in an image the way that I see myself represented. It’s very hard to describe, but it’s definitely there.
All of my images are talking to each other even if they’re from one period of my life to another. I think they’re all trying to be a diagnostic example of growth and the interchange of love and showing what it means to be okay with sex and homosexual sex and bodies and given circumstances and adversity and pain—and having all of that be just as beautiful as when I go on diaristic tangents of, like, the pretty things in my life. I want them to be equally speaking to each other.
LLHW: That makes sense. Most of your photographs are black and white. What initially drew you to monochrome, and what sparked you to turn to colour in some of your work?
JS: I think what initially drew me to black and white was that was what I learned. I went to the International Center of Photography before NYU. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to do that for three years at ICP’s Teen Academy. Each class that I took was a monochrome, develop-it-yourself, 35mm, initial darkroom class. It still feels very familiar and very, like, that back-of-your-head feeling that’s just satiated and good.
When I’m shooting in black and white, I know what my limits are. I feel less overwhelmed because there are only so many tones that I’m going to be presenting to my audience. So it’s not like I have to worry about distracting them. I know that I’m really insecure about distracting my audience. Whenever I take photographs, it’s very frenzied. My black and white photographs make so much more sense to me and to other people in a non-verbal way.
I think because I’m always in this state of, like, trying to acknowledge that I have mental illness but not let it rule me and not let it rule the tone at which I make art. That’s not my entire personality but I’m aware of it. I choose not to allow it to have any space and therefore I don’t give it the opportunity of color. Because when I shoot colour I don’t think I can handle focusing on stuff that isn’t overly-saturated, overly-disgusting, or overly-friendly to the viewer. Black and white gives me that control that I don’t have in my brain.
LLHW: The energy of the imagery is really distilled in monochrome.
JS: I’m still trying to understand it too. Especially with my landscapes, like, I know that the color version is more crazy, and my family and friends are all like, “Wow, pretty!” But I don’t want to put work out there if it doesn’t twist a knife into my heart a little bit, and for some reason black and white pumps away all distractions and puts me face-to-face with whatever emotion is being conjured. I just love that harshness of black and white.
LLHW: You studied theatre in high school. Do you think there’s a performance happening in the making of your photographs? I’m thinking about the images with your mom, where you’re posing together. Do you think of that as a kind tableau when you’re creating?
JS: For sure. Good point, I think you’re a hundred percent right. I mean, it shouldn’t be overlooked that I willingly spent four years of my teenagehood in a conservatory-theatre high school. I get hooked onto these forms of expressions when I feel like I can’t understand my world, and acting was really good for me between the years of 2011-15. The teachers that I had were scary and mean and not conducive to me pursuing performing arts at all, but it did teach me to notice every single nuance of somebody’s face.
And that stuck with me forever: the way that you could communicate just with behaviour language if you’re just slightly more observant and more purposeful with the way that you present yourself to a lens or just somebody else’s eye. That stuck with me forever. I think it has everything to do with my performance background. Like, I’m thinking about the image of me where I’m naked climbing up the slide. A lot of my images are a snapshot of a kinetic performance and I don’t necessarily know why that is.
LLHW: Do you think you’re directing your mom when you’re making photographs with her, or is it more a collaborative process, with her choosing how she’s being represented?
JS: That’s a good question. I think it’s collaborative, definitely, but unbeknownst to her because of my method, which has been my method for a while. I’ll set up the scene roughly that I want, compositionally, and I’ll tell her what the action will be—like, cut my hair, stand behind this tree, let me lay on your lap. But then I hold off on pressing the shutter, sometimes for, like, five minutes at a time. And we both don’t speak. That’s how I get my best images of her. Because she lets go of this, like, happy-smiley fakeness.
If I acknowledge it or bring it up audibly, it’ll stay and the image won’t be true. I’m silent and I don’t let her know at all what I’m looking for, because I’m not looking for anything specific. I’m just looking for her walls to come down. So I’m directing ever so quietly, ever so manipulatively, but I’m trying to find that moment of bare-faced emotion within the way that I set up the room. That I do intentionally. But gestures and faces, I let happen and then I just click away.
LLHW: How has your mom responded to being the subject of your photographs?
JS: That’s a complex question. She’s super unpredictable, right? That’s part of my obsession with her being my first official muse.
Before I even knew what the word muse meant and before I knew why I was drawn to photographing her, I was like, “Why?” and she also was like “Why?” Over these years, the more that I showed her that this is an essential part of the way that I’m trying to think about my life and reflect on my world, the more she realized that I’m not coming from a place of malice. I’m not, like, trying to catch her looking ugly, or show her wrinkles—those were her main concerns in the beginning. I understand the validity of that and I felt bad. But at the same time, I was like, America has taught you to be so insecure about your wrinkles and how hot you look for a picture. I’m your son, I don’t care. Everyone gets wrinkles, everyone is ageing. It just adds more fuel to the fire of me, like, wanting to photograph her more when she was uncomfortable.
Now she’s more comfortable and I think the love comes through more in my photographs.
LLHW: It strikes me that you’re present in almost all of the photographs of your mom. In some images, you are physically posing for the photo with her; in others, you are physically represented in part—a hand, your mirrored reflection—and sometimes, your presence is implied in the way she is looking and reacting to you making an image. Do you see yourself in the pictures of your mom?
JS: That’s the goal. A lot of people, when they see the title Portraits of my Mother, they think it’s this quest to give her a voice, but it’s definitely not only that. It’s to show and expose our unique, unique, unique relationship of both being mentally-afflicted, and just like figuring shit out together. It’s me doing it with the camera, and her just living her life. I would like to add me into every picture if I could do it, and that’s really the goal.
Sometimes I just like to be more coy about it. If you stare at the picture for a while then you understand what’s going on, you see a piece of my actual tangible body. I feel like that adds so much power to the image because it’s layered. I’m thinking about the image where my mom’s holding her guinea pig, Isabella. That shoot itself was three and a half hours long, just for that one image. We were all just trying out different things and I realized that she was most comfortable when she was just holding the guinea pig like she normally would, but we’re talking and we’re having an active-listening conversation. That’s how I got the picture.
There’s definitely me in every single portrait of my mom. In a way, she doesn’t feel comfortable if I’m not proving that I’m also just as vulnerable as she. And I want to do that for her. I want to be like, Look we’re in this together. It’s about both of us.