Cross a visual anthropologist with a talented photographer and you get Laurence Salzmann. Through films, books and still images made over four decades, he has created penetrating cultural narratives set in Europe, the Americas and the Middle East.
Salzmann has lived in Philadelphia since he was born here 65 years ago next Sunday, except for extended residencies in Romania, Turkey, Jerusalem and Mexico, to name but a few of the places in which he has worked. It's these deep immersions in local cultures that give his photographs exceptional resonance and poignancy.
Embedding in local communities, developing relationships with the locals, speaking their languages and adopting the rhythms of their daily lives constitutes the anthropologist's modus operandi. It allows Salzmann the photographer and filmmaker to develop his themes from a privileged insider's position.
The exhibition of Salzmann's pictures that will open at the Old City Jewish Art Center on Friday might not be quite large enough to deliver the full measure of his multifaceted cultural excavations. Yet the show of about 50 black-and-white prints is thematically unified - it addresses the Jewish Diaspora from three geographical perspectives.
One concerns Jews, in the 1970s, living in the northern Romanian town of Radauti, a once-thriving but then declining community devastated by World War II. The second section looks at the Sephardim of Turkey, descended over five centuries from Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. The third part of the show is about the Jews of Jerusalem, among whom Salzmann lived for 10 months in 1977.
"Every Land Is Full of Thee and Every Sea," as the show is titled, would appear to be perfect for the Old City Jewish Art Center, and not simply because both the photographer and the people he depicts are Jews. Founded in 2006 by Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, the center aims not only to encourage the expression of Jewish spiritual and cultural values but also to expose non-Jews to them.
Rabbi Schmidt, executive director of Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that "it's important for people to understand each other. The great thing about the art center is that it's not a synagogue, so you can make the connection with Jewish culture" in a way that doesn't involve religious doctrine or practice.
Among its activities, the center programs regular exhibitions, which aren't restricted to Jewish artists. Its recent craft show, which closed Wednesday, was one such.
Salzmann's exhibition photographs are, for the most part, more about how Jews live than about the particulars of their worship. Those made in the mid-1970s in Radauti (pronounced Ra-da-OOTZ), where his two-year residency was supported by a Fulbright-Hays grant, are typical.
They depict such activities as people bargaining in the weekly peasant market, negotiating with the ritual butcher, and preparing the bread called challah. Salzmann published as a separate book a subset of photos of men made in the communal bathhouse.
The Sephardim photos, made during a five-year residency from 1984 to 1989, are similar. The book version contains a number of group photographs of community leaders, interiors of synagogues, and images of work, leisure and rituals such as weddings.
The Jerusalem photographs differ in being less personal regarding the photographer's relationship to the subjects; they're more casual street photography. In his 1978 portfolio of Jerusalem photos, dedicated to Israel's 30th anniversary, Salzmann explained that most were made on the streets near his apartment.
Visual documentaries of this kind need texts to make the images meaningful to a general audience. These have been supplied by Salzmann's wife and longtime collaborator, Ayse Gürsan-Salzmann. A native of Turkey and fluent in that language as well as English and French, she's a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Salzmann himself is multi-lingual, speaking French, Spanish, German, Romanian and "a little Hebrew." He also understands Turkish. He began cultivating his language facility at 16, when he traveled to Cuba on a field trip.
He majored in German literature at Temple University, and reinforced his Spanish during a tour with the Peace Corps in Latin America in the 1960s. Subsequently he returned to Temple for a master's in visual anthropology.
He has exhibited his photographs extensively in the Philadelphia region, in Europe and in Israel. In 1996, for instance, he was paired with another local photographer, Don Camp, for an exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History called "Face to Face," about interactions between Jews and African Americans. This body of work also became a book, published by Blue Flower Press.
Since 1992, when his Turkish pictures were shown at the University Museum, Salzmann has also exhibited locally and regionally at the Philadelphia Art Alliance (1995), Taller Puertorriqueno (2001), Lafayette College (2002) and Haverford College (2005). For about 15 years, he has operated a small gallery called Photo West on Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia, exhibiting his photos and those of other local photographers.
While the show at the art center focuses on his Jewish projects, in recent years Salzmann has become devoted to documenting Latin American cultures, in Argentina, Cuba and Mexico. His visit to Cuba in 2000 produced not only a suite of pictures but also a book,
La Lucha/The Struggle,
about the training of young wrestlers.
For the last several years, he has been traveling to the Mexican state of Puebla to document the home territory of the many immigrants who have come to Philadelphia over the last 10 to 15 years. This project is tentatively titled
A Life Left Behind.
He recalls beginning with photography about age 12; his mentor was Reuben Goldberg, a friend of his father's who worked at the Penn museum. Aside from that informal instruction, he developed his skills and his subject matter on his own, guided in large part by his anthropological training and instincts.
He credits the ongoing partnership with his wife in these projects with helping to hone those instincts. "The collaboration has helped both of us," he said. "She has become more sensitive to looking at photos and I have become more sensitive to ethnographic issues." The exhibition at the Jewish Art Center, which runs through Jan. 29, affirms the truth of that observation.
The Laurence Salzmann exhibition opens at the Old City Jewish Art Center, 119 N. Third St., on Jan. 2 from 5 to 9 p.m. and continues through Jan. 29. At a "Meet the Artist" reception Jan. 18 from 2 to 4 p.m., Salzmann will show two films,
Song of Radauti
Turkey's Sephardim: 500 Years.
Gallery hours are 1 to 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 5 to 9 p.m. First Fridays, except for religious holidays. 215-923-1222 or