Ten Years in Pictures, Paul Solberg’s fifth photographic compendium, catalogues a decade of ethnographic encounters. From Hanoi to Cairo to Sicily to Jordan, we meet a startling diversity of artistic topography. The book reads as a world portrait where each part makes up a whole; each portrait stands alone with a poetic, poignant potency whilst weaving itself into a photographic tapestry of humanity. Solberg hones in on the intricacies in his anthropological portraits; choosing to capture the spontaneous, subtler details of cultural expression; but instead of cataloguing these subjects with a flat, documentary objectivity, he infuses these details with a joy, a poignancy and a simple reflectiveness. Through his photographs, we see “a world in which Solberg lives and wish we could all live”… we see a world in which we live in, but haven’t drawn our attention to. You are standing in Solberg’s shoes when looking at his photographs. The Moholy-Nagy new vision approach reframes his scenes and subjects from an alternative angle; encouraging us too to look on anew and afresh with, and though, his hungry, curious eyes.
Ten Years in Pictures represents ten years of collecting and curating tales from lenses and lives abroad. Ahead of its launch, Suzanna Swanson-Johnston caught up with Paul in his Manhattan home as he catches a breath between countries to discuss what this book represents for him and to reflects on ten years of recording life in his lens.
The book begins in 2004; the beginning of your professional photography career. Set the scene.
I have always been plagued by that chronic question of ‘Who are we? If you live with that, then you tend to be drawn to subjects like Anthropology, Philosophy, Photography out of a yearning for an answer. I come from a family where photography was a hobby; a predominant hobby, but a hobby, not a career. I ended up going to study Social Anthropology at university in South Africa and moved to N.Y.C. afterwards. As a kid in that city you can afford to be lost and that afforded me wonderful space in my twenties to live, and reflect. I met a director there and I assisted him on a film he was making, whilst ‘fluffing’ on Wall Street; talking to old ladies about their money in order to make enough of my own. Quintessentially Woody Allen. I moved to Nice when I was twenty-six to work for an ad agency. I loathed it. But I am adamant that being shown a lack of success and having it revealed to you what you hate and what you’re not good at, reveals to you what you are. The camera was always the most natural thing for me. But it wasn’t till my thirties, 2004, I was told I had the potential of it being my profession. I was offered a book deal, and with that came the promise of a career. I guess that tension, intensity, and desire has exploded into ten years of a densely packed period of work – which this book charts a selection of.
Does marking this decade herald a different direction for your work now?
A photographer’s best work is usually in their later years; you need a lifetime of experience to shape your eye. Studying photography after you’ve learnt the technical process never made sense to me. Being thirsty and curious and learning about your subject grows your eye and that is the best school for taking pictures. I feel I’m still closer to the beginning of this whole process. It’s about paying attention, and I don’t always do. I would like to do a singular, biopic exploration of one subject at one point. My travel schedule is very disjointed so I’ve never in one place long enough. I am never that calculated about my career; I try to just stay relaxed, do my business and put it out there in the most honest way possible.
How have you seen the world evolve and change over the past ten years?
2004/2005/2006 were the last years where we were pre mass-media; people weren’t continually connected to technology. Now, we are all plugged in but entirely disconnected in being so; always partially listening or watching. We are so obsessive about documenting that we are never experiencing; we watch everything through the lenses of our iPhones.
Photography is an interesting dichotomy of that document / experience binary. I try to be as attentive to the world as I can and my photographs come out of that as an emblem of that experience. Thus, I work very candidly and organically.
The book is composed entirely of ‘found photos’; ‘found’ driving from Jordan to the Dead Sea and having a cup of tea with a man looking after fifteen orphans; ‘found’ as the light stroke perfectly on the surfers coming through Munich [City Surf]; ‘found’ when you happen to have discarded polaroid film in your camera and the sailors come off the boats [Service]; ‘finding’ ballroom dancers in the snow at the St. Peterburg market. This book was an exercise in of going through some of the thousands of images I’ve never looked back on and curating them. Half the book is unpublished material.
But I am highly aware that the cultures I have been recording might not be there in the next ten years, or five years even. Throughout my travels, the moment that has stuck with me the most is when I was dropped from a helicopter onto Alaska’s largest body of ice; the Bering Glacier. When you’re on a planet of ice, to hear the crackling and moan of the ice melting, you realize with a new clarity, the looming dilemma that the planet is literally disappearing from under our feet.
Having seen so much of the world, has your faith in humanity been inspired or disillusioned?
Travel turns you into an optimist and it teaches you that you know very little. The old adage “the more you know the more you don’t know” is really true. You go to different ends of the globe, and you learn, as cynical as one can be, people are generally good. I always think, why doesn’t CNN feature – in the same four story loop that they repeat over and over – an enlightening story about someone, somewhere, anywhere. They’re not hard to find, I know from experience; I’ve been welcomed into enough stranger’s homes. It’s hard to find a negative story on the road, why don’t you hear a good one occasionally from the news? I guess the sad story sells, otherwise we would hear them.
So that’s what travel does. It gives you the real news. The unedited news. The Egyptian cab driver that saw I was digging his Egyptian pop music he was playing as we drove through Luxor, and he finds me the next day, to give me the C.D. of music. I guess these small stories don’t have a lot of show-business to them. They’re more fireside stories. But that’s what I seek to capture ; the small details, the intricacies, the moments, the smaller narratives.
There is an anonymity to your work; thanks to the reluctance to provide a narrative, title or context and the new-vision-alternative angle of your lens...
I like to keep ambiguity. If there is a story, it is a collaboration with the viewer and I leave it up to them to impose their own decisions about who this person is and what their story is – I find that the interesting part. The identities are in the objects, not the names and the titles.
I find it far more fascinating when you hone in on the details. Under a microscope, suddenly the invisible becomes another world of mountains, rivers and new shapes.
What has travel taught you?
My travel process tends to be pretty unplanned; that’s how you find the spontaneous moments, you have to let the experiences happen through exploration. Crossing roads with no street lights in Hanoi; the orchestra of activity in streets dense with pandemonium and the weaving currents of Cairo; the sensation of dry in the Atacama desert; the solitude and the beautiful lifelessness; invitations into familiar strangers homes in Jordan; floating in the Dead Sea; the matte black of Lanzarote.
I appreciate how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to travel as much as I have; it’s something everyone should experience. You can read to escape your mind but it doesn’t compare to actually being there. I’ve stood in the spot where the bombs dropped on Vietnam and met the same family that still lives there. The faces, and connections, and people. It is being present in moments like that that is your world education. Travel builds empathy and expands perspective. A life of travel makes you realize everything is relative to your little world, so you don’t usually sweat the small stuff. You are humbled when you understand how provincial your concerns are.
Ten Years in Pictures Review