Essay by Nancy Princenthal
Plenty: Photographs of Display by Elke Solomon
Display is the primary artifact of an impulse to be seen - a drive that is so socially and biologically idespread as to be called a universal need. By the same token, and equally, we like to look. Over the last decade and more, Elke Solomon has become a connoisseur of display, and a virtuoso voyeur. Strolling, camera at the ready, through food stalls and flea markets from Brooklyn to Hong Kong, she has witnessed the nearly endless variety with which ordinary domestic goods are arranged for retail consumption. Mostly what she has found is plenty. The snapshots Solomon has amassed, hundreds of which fill several ring-bound volumes, are an encyclopedia of abundance: heaps and barrels of food, row after row of clothing, baskets and bushels and boxes of all variety of stuff in depth, and breadth. Almost always, there is also rigidly fixed order. In the visual language of fecundity and wealth, the ruling figure seems to be metonymy. Buy the one and you will have, figuratively, the whole, the many; the multitudinous. But metaphor is close behind: buy the pomegranate or the lacy white dress of the spring green plastic bowl an be healthy, wealthy, and young.
That, anyway, is the basic structure of the language of display that Solomon has been studying. But its particular pleasures are all to do with surprise often comic, and the images in this book were chosen with that in mind. Some of the humor is at least partially intended by unknown artists on the other side of the lens, as when two pigs face each other in a sign painted for an Italian deli, or a chicken and a cow dance side by side in a Kosher marketís window. But much is fortuitous. A stunted totem of stacked plastic trays each filled with drinking glasses, the glasses and trays covered in plastic wrap, suggests slapstick forestalled - to comedy's advantage. A table laden with carefully arranged antipasti is subverted by the intrusion, at upper left, of a couple of meaty links of sausage, limp, lumpy, and unmistakably priapic. At an outdoor market, we see nested straw baskets, and, as a decorative scroll at the right margin, the double curve of a manís stomach hanging over his belt: a second look reveals a disembodied foot below. Some photos capture the visual mishaps caused when the one-eyed camera causes near and more distant things collapse, as in a table full of sunglasses that also holds two hand mirrors, which extend like plastic prostheses from the thighs of a man standing behind it. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes distinguishes two basic elements of photography, the studium - the "very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste"1 that constitutes the namable subject of a photograph - and the punctum. This second element, he writes, is that discrepancy which "punctuates" or "stings" or "wounds" the studium.
It is also what most holds Barthes' interest - and Solomon's. For all its careful order, there is not much formal tact in the kind of display Solomon is after. Good composition makes its subjects seem unique, and elevated above the sordid appetites that govern the market. It promotes poise and integrity. The kind of ordinary commercial display Solomon documents, by contrast, targets simpler, even baser, pleasures. And amid its routine excess there tends to emerge, at least in Solomon's photos, the anomalous extra that, like the unconscious, escapes deliberate control only to reveal itself as expression's never idle motor. Thus the irrepressible vitality of a shirt hanging too big in the field of vision, or the over-bright bouquet of plastic-handles serrated knives, or the cartons of grapes pared with onions. Abundance spoiled - or, ratcheted up to something like delirium - by unvoiced drives has been the subject of still life artists from Arcimboldo to Martin Parr, whose nearly psychedelic food photos of the past few years area florid cousin to Solomon's. As in the paradigmatic Dutch still lives of the 17th century, plenty tends to harbor an intimation of trouble: decay, often slight and insidious; mortality. And, just as often, it offers us the last laugh.
Though they constitute a family, Solomonís photos also honor cultural specificity. Ranging across three continents, they are rich in unfamiliar incident: egg yolks lined up in shallow trays to dry in the sun, for instance, in China; tomatoes shaped like zucchini, in Italy. Color, rich and sometimes unexpected, is also culturally specific. But this book is not a travelogue, and it doesnít humor the idea that consumption is a register of discernment. It is a decidedly ecumenical celebration, and many of its satisfactions have to do with the sequence and pacing of the images, and with the medium-specific pleasures of the book. Having and holding these tempting images, we can still - a particular kind of enjoyment - savor the desire they provoke. And, not least, we indulge our curiosity. In an essay written for an anthology addressing questions of visual display, Stephen Bann focused on a pivotal moment in the min-16th century when European culture was shifting from religious to secular values, and the cabinet of curiosities became a popular form. Random collections by modern standards, these compendia were, Bann says, a kind of way station between shrines, based in ritual, and museums, made possible by enlightenment rationalism. The "curiosity" addressed in these collections was, Bann writes "inimical to inductive reasoning" and also to the kinds of attention sustained by religious relics. "Attachment to objects - we might reasonably say, the cult of objects - was an inseparable feature of curiosity, and so was a particular style of display."2 With contents assorted cheek by jowl, resistant to logic but alive to the dictates of intellectual, visual, and physical appetite the cabinet of curiosities as Bann describes it is just the kind of display Solomon celebrates.
1 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p.27
2 Stephen Bann, "Shrines, Curiosities, and the Rhetoric of Display," Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearances, edited by Lynn Cooke and Peter Wollen (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), p.24-25