Photographing loss with an abstract lens
Seven years ago, while living in New York City, Seattle-based photographer Rafael Soldi’s partner left him suddenly, without explanation. There were no premonitions or warning signs, and the disappearance nearly destroyed him.
To help understand his pain, over the next few years, he made a series of photographs called Sentiment, which combined natural-lit portraits, still lifes and fragments of letters as a chronicle of his loss. These pictures, shot largely on film with warm, natural light show Soldi coming to terms with his individuality and sexual identity. As time passed and he gained some distance from from this emotional trauma, Soldi embarked on his most recent, ongoing body of work, Life Stand Still Here, which he’s been making for the past three years. This new series, which opens as a solo exhibition on June 2 at Seattle’s Glassbox Gallery, offers a darker, more conceptual manifestation and exploration of himself, his fears, and moments when life and its darkest facets can offer monumental symbolism.
The first picture Soldi made for the series, Untitled (XXIV) came from a commission for Seattle’s Frye Art Museum, where a group of 36 artists were prompted to make a piece in response to poems in James Joyce’s volume Chamber Music. “I read up on what Joyce had to say about this suite of poems,” says Soldi “and he mentioned ‘When I wrote Chamber Music, I was a lonely boy, walking about myself at night and thinking that one day a girl would love me.’ At the time I identified with this statement and made this image.” While the picture, an anonymous black and white bust-portrait of a man photographed from behind is not literally a picture of Soldi, he’s come to see it as a self-portrait, and a lynchpin to explore the emotional depth that may have once been out of reach.
Life Stand Still Here, while an extension of Sentiment, approaches loss with a darker, visually abstract lens. Departing from the often straightforward representational portraits and in-between moments of his earlier work, it includes sculpture, altered photographs and digital creations that respond to what Soldi describes as “ the most private spaces within me, my ‘innerness’.” “At a certain point,” says Soldi, “I ran into some ideas that I couldn’t communicate in a single image.” He began working with multiple panels, which expanded his practice into sculpture and installation. The entry-point to this new direction And All of a Sudden You Were Gone, is a grouping of ten digitally fabricated images - ten white, and ten black, of a point, or blurry sphere, somewhat resembling a soft focus monochromatic sun or moon, gradually fading into nothingness. This parallels Soldi’s loss -- not just his relationship, but as a fading inverse of his own self.
Expanding into other mediums, two life-sized replicas of Michelangelo’s David, which Soldi coated in a velvet-like black powder, stand next to each other nearly gazing into each other’s eyes. This might represent another mirror to his inward reflection, with a specific gaze towards self doubt or perhaps a nod to impostor syndrome. “I started to notice how myself and others are so quick to put ourselves down,” he says. “ the moment we receive a compliment we shut it down -- we’re unable to see in ourselves the beauty that other see in us.” For Soldi, David epitomizes the western ideal of chiseled masculine beauty, a mirror which we may constantly hold up to ourselves. As each David stares his reflection down, they imbue an continuous loop of not measuring up.
While Life Stand Still Here, and Soldi’s earlier work Sentiment come from a deeply personal place, the visually ambiguous metaphors for pain and self discovery in his latest work create an accessible, open entry point for viewers to understand and connect to the images and sculpture. Loss, heartbreak, and various levels of self exploration, no matter how dark they may dive, are largely universal experiences, and Life Stand Still Here makes them relatable from infinite angles. “Otherwise,” he says, “it doesn’t give much latitude for viewers to imagine anything other than my experience.”
We are unsure why the sun is out in late Seattle winter, pouring through Rafael's kitchen window and onto the photo strips hanging on his refrigerator. Small moments, sequential, black and white; time spent in Capitol Hill bars with friends and lovers. The panes of his vintage windows frame everything in the room similarly in the bright light of late afternoon.
I first met the Seattle-based photographer and artist Rafael Soldi 4 years ago, soon after his rather tumultuous move from New York City. His lover had literally disappeared, walked-out on the relationship, lighting a match and watching everything burn.
The full emotional upheaval of this has been encapsulated in his celebrated series Sentiment, which showed in its entirety for the first time in Seattle at Greg Kucera gallery as part of the exhibit In the absence of, following a solo exhibition at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Boston. In the series, moments out of sequence: Rafael and his lover posing in shadow and light, yellow flowers shrouded in heavy lace curtains, the bravery of a self portrait in this emotional aftermath, a mass of black balloons left as a gift in a sterile apartment hallway. All of it exists as a chosen documentation of intense loss and release.
BOEHMER: How does it feel to finally have Sentiment exhibited fully?
SOLDI: This work was made a long time ago and though I’ve shown parts of it numerous times over the last five years, seeing it all together on the wall for the first time is really exciting and cathartic. It’s been such a long time since the actual events that prompted this work that I have so much perspective and I experience these images on a very different dimension than before. The installation at Greg Kucera Gallery was very satisfying because the size of the room really allowed viewers to step back and see the whole thing, and the work by fellow artists curated around it also informed the piece nicely.
We drink tea and move around his home, which currently doubles as his studio. I watch Rafael shift from gracious host to careful vessel of thought each time I inquire about his process or new work. "For the first time, I couldn't make pictures of the things I was trying to say," Rafael tells me, as he explains his interest in removing himself from the narrative and diving into his subconscious for symbolic clues of what to create. The diptych All Day I Hear The Noise Of Waters is devoid of any of the color or light or narrative of "Sentiment". It is a pair of dark and closely-cropped photographs of water that look as though they could have been chiseled out of onyx. The sculptural ripples carry a new energy toward some unseen shore.
BOEHMER: This work stems from the events that spurred the creation of Sentiment, yet the finished work is entirely different. Talk with me about your conceptual shift.
SOLDI: That breakup was a life-changing moment for me, beyond heartbreak. It introduced me to adult human emotions like fear, anguish, guilt, panic, and regret. In the years that followed I began to notice an inner selfhood that I couldn’t define. Each of us has a certain resolute innerness, an abstract self that we don’t share with others because we cannot even define it. So while my earlier work was a direct narrative representation of what I was feeling right there and then, this new work is an abstract reflection on the consequences of those events. It investigates the private spaces within me that I shield not from others’ eyes, but from my own. These new works explore my growing awareness of my spiritual subconscious and my fears. For the first time I am taking a conceptual approach, rather than a narrative or representational one.
Rafael spreads some newer work out in his studio for us to peruse, specifically a series of works called Remember Forgetting. What appears to be a grid of white rectangles lifted just slightly from their backing turns out to be photographs of him and a past lover mounted backwards. They were sent to him in a box from his family, who had been holding onto some of his personal effects while he moved to Seattle. A box of memories he didn't want to keep, but couldn't get rid of.
"I like these because they're orderly, beautiful, sensible..." he says. His apartment reflects this: every object, book and piece of furniture meticulously placed and ordered. The photos indeed look intentional, but also quiet. Their immediate language is limited to the slight shifts in light, texture, and color. Knowing that on the other side of each object is an image, a memory that might not ever be seen again is jarring. "Do you remember which photograph is which?" I ask. "No," he says. "Not anymore."
BOEHMER: Memory is such a huge part of your past work, and now you've added this new futurity into the mix. How do you feel time is represented in your current work?
SOLDI: I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about memory and the way we process our past, and how we deal with it on a daily basis. Concepts of time, in a variety of ways, show up quite a bit in my new work but usually in a somewhat abstracted way. The new works are meant to be read in more than one way, they are based on my own experiences but they are not explicit, I want viewers to get a sense or a feeling of what they are looking at but fill in the blanks with their own experiences—they are essentially screens. I Choose To Remember/Forget definitely deals with memory which is inherently linked to time. Another piece titled And All of a Sudden You Were Gone is a grid of photographs that loosely resembles the physical depiction of a timeline. Untitled (XIV) depicts the back of a man’s head looking into a black expanse, which I interpret as looking into the past.
We end our studio visit with a viewing of a concept for a new piece that is a complete departure from photography: a pair of full-scale black facsimiles of Michelangelo’s David. They appear to stare into each other's eyes. Their presence is intense, and I imagine these two dark lovers or twins or brothers caught observing each other's frozen beauty for eternity. Or maybe their gazes just miss, their only view of each other off-center, forever stuck in each other's dark periphery.
"I see my work as this long thread that is catching all these experiences", Rafael tells me. "There's a soul, a privacy, and an innerness."
It has grown darker in the apartment and we both take notice. I gather my things and we exchange farewells and part ways. Walking into the early evening, I catch the dark windows of different apartments and houses brighten with lamplight. We are all getting ready for the night.
Words by Rafael Soldi
Originally published in Hello Mr.
Every gay man takes a pilgrimage—some earlier than others—to define his identity and come to terms with who he is and who he wants to be.
Through my late teens and early 20s, uncertainty was pretty much the norm. There was one place, though, where I always felt I fit right in: with my grandmother, my Nonna. Throughout my childhood I felt a connection to her that I am only able to understand now as an adult—she was a quiet woman, but from an early age I appreciated her view of the world, even if I didn't quite understand what it was. My family relocated to the United States from Peru when I was a teenager, and I came to cherish the yearly visits and limited time with my Nonna, who still lived in Peru. While I had come out to most of my family, it had never crossed my mind to discuss it with any of my grandparents. They probably wouldn't understand, I figured, and seeing that they wouldn't be around much longer I questioned the necessity to have such conversation. But I did always wonder if that was a conversation I should have had with my Nonna before she passed away, would she had been okay with it? Would a woman whose vision of the world I admired so much also accept mine?
My Nonna, Anna Maria Soldi, was born in 1919 in Ovada, Italy. In 1941 she graduated with a degree in chemistry, a remarkable accomplishment for a woman in the midst of the Second World War. She relocated to Peru after the war to marry her cousin, Carlos, with whom she had developed a relationship through letters across the Atlantic during the war, and later on as they traveled through Europe together. My grandfather died when their five children were young so she raised them while building an impressive life of her very own. One of the most intelligent women I have ever known, my Nonna lived her life as an ethnohistorian dabbling in archeology, anthropology and paleography—an expert in Peru’s pre-Columbian history. She nurtured special life-long friendships with people that went on to define their field together. I recently learned of her close friendship with Craig Morris, a gay man from New York and an important figure at the American Museum of Natural History for over 30 years. Throughout the 70's and 80's Morris visited Peru frequently, and my Nonna became his right hand in Peru, later meeting his partner, Alexis.
Her home was a treasure trove filled with books in all languages, ancient artifacts, textiles, and pottery. There were strange instruments, beautiful paintings, and issues of National Geographic and other publications that told tales of the outside world. As a photography student I started to photograph her home, and I continued to document it through her death and the building's eventual encounter with the wrecking ball. I documented nooks and crannies, warm vignettes, makeshift still-lifes, collected spaces, and tokens of a worldly life. I don't recollect ever asking if I could photograph her home; it happened organically every time I visited, but slowly became more and more deliberate as I learned how important those pictures were becoming to me. In the last few years before her death I was finishing my photography degree and becoming more serious about my work; she insisted I bring my portfolio with me on my next trip home so she could see it. As most artists know, sharing your artwork with family members can be a bit of an awkward situation. I remember clearly opening up a portfolio of large prints on her bed;she drew the blinds so the direct sun wouldn't damage the prints—I found this gesture alone to be a surprisingly insightful one for a grandmother. We continued to have a conversation about every image, her patience never exhausted, she was curious, thoughtful, and present—not just then, but throughout my entire life. She was interested on how the pictures made her feel.
My Nonna was a soft-spoken woman of few words—in lieu of emotional goodbyes she would simply place her hand lightly on my cheek and look me directly in the eyes in the most gentle, loving way. She would kiss my cheek as she held my face in her palms. She typed on her typewriter and later on a computer—her e-mails and letters were always formal and poetic, she made her words dance in a beautiful way that only the Spanish language can afford. She slept on a simple twin–size bed, surrounded by her life’s work.
She died when I was 20 years old. At the time I was living in Baltimore, and was coming into my own person. I was about to graduate from art school and our discussions about art and my intentions and ideas for the future had just begun. I looked forward to sharing much of my life with her because I felt she would understand it—with her I felt at home. From her I learned that I didn’t need to be defined by my heritage, my sexuality, or by other people but rather by my actions, my character, and my life's work. She died at the age of 90—lucid and awake until just days prior—in her bed surrounded by her children and grandchildren, as she had wanted.
Months after her death I found myself missing her and searched my e-mail inbox, wanting to read her words again. I found an e-mail in which I'd sent her a photograph that I had taken of my then-boyfriend, my first love. It was a portrait that I liked very much and I wanted to share with her, though I never actually told her who the man in the photograph was. I had no recollection of her response until I found the e-mail again. It read:
“Well, my dear grandson, although I have probably already told you, when I saw that picture I liked it in a very special way. The photos I have seen before have always been good, some even very good, but in this one―I’m having difficulty finding a more elaborate expression―I see your soul. I can tell you know him intimately, and amongst all the expressions you know him to have, you have found a very special moment in which he is, well, vulnerable. Vulnerability is a consequence of trust, and I can tell he trusts you. I don’t know how to say it in any other way, but it makes me very happy that someone appreciates that quality in your photograph.”
I will never know how much she knew about my sexuality or whether it even mattered to her. But what I have come to understand thanks to my Nonna is that the content of my character is far too complex to be boiled down to my sexuality alone. What she saw in that picture and encrypted in her message was a different type of acceptance, a much more important one, one that celebrated and recognized a meaningful step in my pilgrimage to define my identity as an artist and as a man.
Dear Diary: Rafael Soldi
Words by Elissa Favero
Originally published in Art Nerd Seattle
Artist Rafael Soldi makes photographs of quiet intimacy. When figures don’t appear in them, objects often seem to stand in for absent protagonists.
In an image from 2011, Will You Miss Me Once I’m Gone?, currently hanging as part of the IDxID: New Identities Revisited show at the Washington State Convention Center (and up through April 9), the building itself appears to take on human behavior, inhaling air through open windows to pull curtains close and shroud a vase of yellow flowers. There’s an underlying tension between the palpable immediacy of breath and beauty and threat of time and affection slipping away. Those blooms will surely fade. Will heartbreak follow, or has it already come?
Rafael’s more recent work, which will be shown at Boston’s Griffin Museum of Photography later this year, moves in a different direction. The forms are more abstracted, the tonalities so subtle against each other. Whereas much of his older work, especially the Sentiment series, has a strong sense of emotional urgency – the “here!” and “now!” you might expect from such a title – these new prints are cooler, with a more elastic sense of time. Waves lap, as they have for thousands and thousands of years, and with inscrutability, a classical-looking figure and prints themselves turn their backs to the viewer. It feels like a move forward for the photographer.
Words by Paula Tognarelli
Executive Director and Curator , Griffin Museum of Photography
At the Griffin Museum of Photography I have observed diverse responses to Rafael Soldi's exhibit, "Sentiment." There are those that love the exhibit and there are those that strongly do not and some indifference falls into the mix as well.
One male patron asked only if the work was about homosexuals and moved on to the next exhibit quickly. Another visitor spent most of her time at the museum looking only at Soldi's photographs. One reviewer referred to the photographs as "mopey"; another as "cumulatively creepy."
Rafael's mother traveled all the way from South America to the Griffin Museum. Once there she told me she couldn't look at most of the photographs because she could see her son's pain in all of them. Of course a mother would be in tune with the nuance of her child's body language.
For me, the photographs speak volumes because loss is no stranger. I've doubled over in anguish and howled at a dark sky. I recognize the vacant gaze of grief and despair. In our society though men are not supposed to fall adrift in sorrow. They're supposed to suck it up and resume. Real men would.
Instead Soldi goes out on a limb for the viewer. He opens up his wound and holds it to the light. We get an invitation to the intimate of moments. He asks questions, pokes a stick and looks back. What now? Can I go on? Which way? Will I love again? How did this happen? His probing is uncomfortable. For some more so because it goes against the norm.
"Sentiment" is real and raw and human. I respect Soldi's process of exploring life's obstacles. Through his art, the artist emerges and takes a stand, stronger, braver and open to what lies beyond. And the photographs.... they speak to the purity of youth and tenderness with a pinch of naiveté. We've all been there; when love was eternal and then it wasn't. I do recall moping for a college semester or two.
I am very proud to host Rafael Soldi's photographs in exhibition at the Griffin. I love that they have churned the thinking of many. Isn't that what art should do? My thanks to you, Rafael Soldi.
Executive Director and Curator
Griffin Museum of Photography
A Black and white issue
Words by Brangien Davis
Orginally published in Seattle Magazine (link)
“I’m not afraid of the dark,” says photographer Rafael Soldi. He’s talking about the deep gray color he painted the kitchen and dining nook of his Squire Park apartment, but his assertion also applies to the black-and-white photographs he collects and displays in every room and hallway.
Born and raised in Peru, Soldi attended the Maryland Institute College of Art, majoring in photography and curatorial studies. After working for a photography gallery in New York City, he moved to Seattle in 2010—only planning to stay for the summer.
He’s still here, surrounded by photography both in his position as marketing director for Photo Center Northwest (pcnw.org) and in his home. “My favorite pieces have a story attached to them,” he says of his collection, which contains many shots by photographer friends as well as his own work. “Something about knowing the artist changes the art—I see them in it.” Soldi has also managed to collect prints by famous photographers such as Vivian Maier, Richard Avedon and Abelardo Morell (the last of whom originally inspired him to be a photographer), thanks to galleries with accommodating payment plans, which he says is common practice almost everywhere. “Never be ashamed to say, ‘This is my budget, how can I work with you?’” he advises.