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The Polyanna photographer: Salomon ’82 seeks beauty

The Polyanna photographer: Salomon ’82 seeks beauty

By Sarah Lehr

When Alyssa Salomon ’82 turned eight, her parents gave her a camera and a watch. “Those were two objects that kept track of life’s process,” she said.
Salomon, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, spoke in Horvitz Hall to an audience of around 40 on Thursday, Feb. 14 during Common Hour. The title of her talk, “These Wild Ecstasies & Making Photographs to See What Photography Sees,” alluded to William Wordsworth’s poem, Tintern Abbey.
Salomon said that her parents were somewhat disappointed by the pictures that she took with her birthday present.
“They were pictures of roots, branches and sidewalks,” she said. “They weren’t pictures of my smiling friends.” She then added, “I did have friends.”
In the years since, Salomon has learned to take more interesting pictures, but she’s held on to her fascination with objects. After leaving her job in finance and moving to Richmond, Va., she started arranging miscellaneous tidbits into vaguely-human statuettes.
But Salomon said that when she took photos of these statues, they just looked like piles of stuff. To solve this problem, she borrowed the composition seen in 19th-century daguerreotype portraits. This way, viewers would associate the statues with people. “In the age of daguerreotypes, having your picture taken was an ennobling experience,” Salomon said. She hopes that the way she shoots her statues will similarly ennoble what would otherwise be piles of junk. “It’s about the stuff that people hold sacred,” she said.
Salomon realizes that these statues are at risk of seeming kitschy and ironic, but she strives for sincerity in her artwork.
“Irony is such a dead end, which isn’t to say that I don’t love it,” she said.
Salomon’s sense of humor is occasionally sardonic. She described her former home in Richmond as, “in a leafy area, but pretty urban. … I mean someone rang my doorbell and tried to sell me crack.”
Before her talk in Horvitz, she offered artistic feedback to Kenyon seniors. After Salomon saw a student’s pornographic painting, she pronounced it “not hardcore enough.”
Yet Salomon’s collection of photos, Tell Me Again, the World Will Be Beautiful, captures optimism rather than snark. The project focuses on the outdoors and on water, in particular
Salomon loves taking her telephoto lens to Virginia Beach. She described how people take on a kind of near-baptismal innocence when they splash around in the water and she quipped that, so far, no one has arrested her for taking pictures of nearly-naked beachgoers.
Years ago, Salomon went to the beach with her students from the Penland School of Crafts in N.C. “Normally, they drank a lot of beer and smoked a lot and were generally crabby,” she said. “But as soon as they got in the water they looked like angels.”
Salomon shared one of her pieces, which is a silkscreen riffing off of a line from Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies. Salomon commented on how our experience of a blue sky is simply an illusion that arises because of the way that light is reflected. According to Solomon, however, that doesn’t mean that we should appreciate a blue sky any less.
“We often see the person who is Polyanna as being stupid,” she said. “But I’m going to see things that are beautiful. I’m going to find the sublime.”

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