Mexico Notebook: Interview with Laurence Salzmann

From the series "Echele Ganas" © Laurence Salzmann

Hannah FrieserJaime Permuth and I are collaborating to explore contemporary photography in Mexico. We're looking at trends and how they relate to traditions; events, institutions and venues; as well as pursuing conversations with curators, academics, gallerists and photographers on what's happening currently. This collaborative project will feature a variety of types of posts including interviews, book reviews, published letters, portfolios of images and more.

Hannah Frieser is a curator, photographer and book artist and former Executive Director of Light Work. Jaime Permuth is a Guatemalan photographer living and working in New York City and a Faculty Member at the School of Visual Arts.

Today we continue this series with an interview with Laurence Salzmann.

Laurence Salzmann is a native of Philadelphia who has worked as a photographer and filmmaker since the early 1960s. His projects document the lives of little known groups in America and abroad. He looks at the lives of people ranging from occupants of single room occupancy hotels in New York City to transhumant shepherds in Transylvania, residents of a Mexican village and Philadelphia Mummers. His photographic study of a nearly extinct Jewish community in Romania was published as The Last Jews of Radauti by Dial/Doubleday in 1983. His work from Cuba, La Lucha/The Struggle, and from Mexico entitled Echele Ganas: Do Your Best were both published by Blue Flower Press.

Salzmann's photographic method is deeply informed by his background in anthropology and involves long term participation in and observation of groups or events. His work illustrates how lives and events are shaped by the environments and conditions in which people live.

Other posts in this series include:
Interview with Diego Berruecos
Interview with Mariela Sancari
Q&A with Eduardo Jiménez Román
Q&A with Claudia Arechiga
Q&A with Nahatan Navarro
Contemporary Photography in Oaxaca
Q&A with Aglae Cortés
Q&A with Maria José Sesma
Interview with César Rodríguez
Q&A with Nora Gómez
Q&A with Melba Arellano
Q&A with Jorge Taboada

From the series "Echele Ganas" © Laurence Salzmann

fototazo: You have a background in anthropology and have worked in photography and film since the 1960s. Talk with us a little about how you started.

Laurence Salzmann: I picked up my first camera a Brownie Hawkeye at age 11. I photographed things of the usual interest to an 11 year-old—the family pet cat and friends making faces. I set about to learn how to develop those films and make prints. A close family friend, Ruben Goldberg, who was a photographer at the University of Pennsylvania Anthropology Museum, showed me how to develop and print them.

I call myself a camera whisperer in that I use my camera to communicate with others. It is as if the camera speaks before I do. As a child I was shy, not given to talking too much. In fact, I still am a reticent person. My camera provided me with my voice to communicate with the world and enabled me to enter into conversations with people with whom I might not otherwise have had spoken.

Growing up in the early fifties in Philadelphia, a city that was very much marked by segregation’s practices, I became aware at an early age of the differences between cultures and classes. At that time it was Blacks, Jews and Whites. Our house was one block from the Black community. There were between us invisible lines that denoted where each group belonged.

These things curious to me as a child became points of departure for topics I was to explore with my photography later in life. For example, Face-to-Face: Encounters between Jews and Blacks and City/2. The former explored race relations, the later interactions between people in public places.

At age seventeen, a part time job in a flower shop permitted me to earn enough money to buy an Asahi Pentax camera (cost then $150). Soon thereafter I took off hitchhiking to Mexico. My idea was to learn Spanish and make photographs. Some of the photos made then made it on to the pages of the popular photo magazines of the day like Modern and Popular Photography.

From the series "Echele Ganas" © Laurence Salzmann

From the series "Echele Ganas" © Laurence Salzmann

Photography has allowed me to express my feelings about life and the world around me. History and the study of cultures has informed my photographic vision. I seek to know about places before I photograph them. Serendipity has aided often in my quest to make a memorable photograph. Like my photograph of the hearse in the snow that came to define my Last Jews of Raduati series.

After fifty years the magic that I felt when I developed my first roll of 620 film is still there. The thrill of making a photograph and then printing it out even if just on a digital printer still fascinates me as much as the first time I saw my print appear in the developer bath.

f: And how about your study and work in anthropology? How has that informed your photographic practice?

LS: This is a good question and leaves much to think about.

Before photography, a prior interest of mine as a child was stamp collecting. I was a part of a group of kids I remember in junior high like at age 11-13 who traded stamps. Together we went to stamp stores and stamp meets where we met fellow collectors and learned about water marks and perforations. Now-a-days people don't even send letters or give much thought to the stamp on one if they ever send one.

Stamps brought me in contact with the larger world and excited my fancy about far away places that I was able to visit through the pictures and photos found on stamps. I also came to have five or six pen pals in countries far and wide with whom I traded stamps and learned a little bit about their country through the stories they told or the events depicted on the stamps we traded.

Stamps gave me a world perspective and an interest in people, history and geography.

From the series "Echele Ganas" © Laurence Salzmann

Interest in far away places was also encouraged in my home in that my father had begun his medical practice in Germany prior to World War II and I had an aunt from Bucuresti, Romania, a city I was later to live in.

I played soccer on a football team, half of whose members were DP’s (Displaced Persons) from the Ukraine. My best friend was a German kid whose Dad had worked in the Soviet Union. A high school friend from the soccer team was a person I hitchhiked to Cuba with in 1960. We were to visit a high school friend who had invited us to come down and see the Cuban Revolution. Can you really see a revolution?

To that time dates my interest in Latino cultures and other cultures in general.

On Saturdays I would hang out with one of my dad's very best friends, Goldberg that I mentioned above, watching him develop pictures in the darkroom there.

When I got my first serious camera, a Kodak Pony 135 fixed lens 35mm camera made out of Bakelite, he showed me how to make available light pictures in the museum's galleries. That was my first introduction to anthropology and photography. He was a great available light photographer back in the day when ASA speeds must have been just 50. So my first pictures were in an anthropology museum. How that informs my photography will take a few more paragraphs.

From the series "Tlaxcalan Sketches" © Laurence Salzmann

From the series "Tlaxcalan Sketches" © Laurence Salzmann

Soon I had by own darkroom in a basement of my parent's house. My dad, always helpful, got a friend to give him an old Federal enlarger and various other odds and ends of photo equipment and soon I was printing photos of my own. My work then was pretty mundane and nothing much to write home about except for one picture I took of a kid in high school picking his nose that was a big hit with everyone except the kid picking his nose.

At age 15 or 16 I graduated to my first really good camera, that Asahi Pentax K [Ed: mentioned above] that was to stay with me for the next 22 years.

In my travels that began at 16 and continued through age 22 or so that camera was always with me. I used to buy Tri-X in 100 foot reels and spool it down and load my own canisters to keep costs down.

I hitchhiked all across the US and once all the way down to Costa Rica. I worked as a work-a-way on foreign flag ships and succeeded in getting Merchant Marine papers (something difficult to do), which permitted me further travel until I arrived at age 19 or so in Belgium. That was the beginning of more travel and picture taking and the learning of German and French. I attended courses here and there and eventually when I returned to the US two years later, I completed my college study as both a language and history major.

From the series "Tlaxcalan Sketches" © Laurence Salzmann

Photography was something I did not feel a need to study as I thought I already knew how to make photographs. Of course it would have helped had I studied it, but I was a wise guy and said to myself, "why study something you already know?" In an effort not to fight in a stupid war and kill people that I had not yet met for no good reason (turns out later I was right), I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to train for a program that would take us to Chile during the time of Frei [Eduardo Nicanor Frei Montalva, former President of Chile], just prior to the US planned coup d'etat that overthrew [Salvador] Allende.

In my training group there was an anthropologist from Columbia Univeristy. Soon I was deemed unfit for Peace Corps service because I had a beard and was considered too pro-Castro. That is how things were in our country in the 1960s. My anthropologist friend recommended I contact his professor and try to get work through him in New York City.

I got hired by a project he was involved with in studying the residents of people living in Single Room Occupancy Hotels. That, and my experience with living in a poor barrio of Juárez, Mexico during my Peace Corps training where I began my first serious project, "Luis's Family," helped make me decide that having a bit more formal training in anthropology would be a good idea. I sat in on some classes given by Margaret Meade who was famous for using photography in her researches in the South Pacific. I started teaching anthropologists how to use photography in their field research and eventually obtained a Master's degree in visual anthropology from Temple University that led to many other connections for me.

From the series "Tlaxcalan Sketches" © Laurence Salzmann

So formal study of the anthropology discipline brought me to have a better understanding of the concepts of what one would call today embedding oneself in a community foreign from one's own. In anthropology, it's sometimes called community participation/observation. A crucial part of course is speaking or understanding the language of the groups being studied and my earlier youthful wanderlust years had left me speaking a smattering of various languages and prepared me to some extent for learning additional ones or at least pretending to understand them even if I did not quite speak them.

I felt that both sociology and anthropology offered a way to understand diverse cultures and deepen my photographic interpretations of ways of life other than my own. I came late to video, but filmmaking was a part of my career from early on.

I shot my first film at age 19 with a professor of English at Temple University. I told him I was an experienced cameraman so he hired me without pay to be the DP [director of photography] on a film he was making based on the poem by the famous American poet Wallace Stevens. We borrowed somebody's camera - a 16mm Bolex - and went into production. It might have been good or bad but the only time we showed that film it all fell apart at every splice because I had used the wrong tape to splice the pieces together. Over time, I honed my skills as an editor and as a cameraman and got to work on other films. Some of them are even still worth looking at including one entitled, "Eddie" that was about an Irish-American named Eddie O'Brian living in a Single Room Occupancy Hotel. It won one of the American Film Institute's first funding awards. And 45 years later it still has a punch to it.

From the series "Luis's Family" © Laurence Salzmann

That was in a way an anthropological film in that it is about a kind of subculture of people living in poverty in New York City in Single Room Occupancy Hotels. The homeless street people of today were once housed in such hotels.

One thing leads to the next as the great Jewish storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer would like to say. And the next thing after a stint as a maker of documentaries about drug abuse for Encyclopedia Britannica was getting hired by Timothy Asch to be the editor of his Yanomamo films. And thereafter being hired by Alan Lomax to be editor of his films, trying to prove his theories of universal dance. All of those projects are well-known and documented either for better or worse depending on whose commentaries you are reading.

I should add that while anthropology may help to broaden my photographic documentations, I am at heart a committed photographer interested in making an image that has resonance and works.

So this just begins to open up or provide an answer to your questions.

f: How did you develop your connection to Mexico and tell us about your early photographic work there.

LS:  It started at age five when my parents drove to Mexico and bought us all Mariachi customs, complete with sombrero and a serape. That is the beginning of the story. Amazing how things from childhood affect you later on in life. They had also bought a painting of a Mexican peasant in somber colors, à la Diego Rivera, which for many years graced our family's living room. I still have it.

At age 17, I set out on a cold February morning to hitchhike from Philadelphia to Mexico. I had dropped out of high school in the second part of my senior year, and wanted to improve the little Spanish I had learned in Cuba during the previous summer.

From the series "Luis's Family" © Laurence Salzmann

In 1966, I was invited to train for the Peace Corps at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. My training included an "in-country experience" in Mexico. Our group was taken to the city of Juárez where each of us was assigned to live with a family. Mine was a family of adobe brick makers. They lived in a barrio humilde (shantytown), outside of Juárez near the Rio Grande River. They were migrants from the state of Zacatecas. I started to photograph them. After I was "de-selected" from the Peace Corps I decided to return to Juárez to make a photographic essay about the family with whom I had stayed during my Peace Corps training.

I photographed the men making adobe bricks in primitive kilns fired by old tires; Juana, the mother, making tortillas cooked over an open fire on a comal made of clay; the children working with their father, Alvino; and Luis, the man who owned the brick yard where they toiled. I titled the finished work "Luis's Family." My photographs were dark and somber, and revealed, in the clarity of black and white images, the impoverished conditions of the family.

On my return to the United States, I continued to work on these images. The photography curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art selected a group of my photographs for inclusion in their photography collection. I made up a dummy book and showed it to Diane Arbus in New York, hoping she might suggest a publisher for them. No one was interested. In retrospect, I now understand: the photographs were too sad.

Inspired by Oscar Lewis' book Children of Sanchez, I attended a summer training program for anthropology students conducted by the University of Pittsburgh in 1969, in the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico. I was sent to the village of Santa Isabel. I set out to create a photographic ethnography of Santa Isabel. At that time, Santa Isabel's life was still very traditional. Villagers tended their milpas, small plots of land on which they raised corn, squash and beans, and built their houses with adobe bricks with red tile roofs; they made pulque, a milk-colored, alcoholic beverage from the fermented sap of the maguey plants that dotted the landscape, and which also served as fences between each family's plot of land. That summer we witnessed the Apollo moon landing on TV sets that had been newly introduced to the village – a striking contrast to the culture of the villagers, many of whom were still walking around barefoot and wearing clothing made from homespun flax. My photographs showed the traditional way of life – that was soon to change, like women washing clothes in the local stream…

At a Visual Anthropology conference in 1971, I met Ayse Gürsan, a Turkish anthropologist who was planning a trip to Mexico to study the peasant market systems of Puebla, Tlaxcala and the Oaxaca Valleys. I volunteered to be her photographer and translator. This cooperative work led to our marriage, and a long history of collaboration on other projects.

These early experiences in Mexico were the beginning of my photographic career, rooted in humanistic themes that I hoped would create paths of understanding between cultures.

From the series "Luis's Family" © Laurence Salzmann

f: I find it intriguing that you've gone back to create work in Mexico four decades later, work that's recently been published as the book Echele Ganas. Do you see these two projects - the first of your career and your most recent book - as comparable? What do they show us about the consistencies and changes in your photography over your career?

LS: Your question is a good one. Anything can be compared with something else and one could compare "Luis's Family" to "Echele Ganas" or for that matter my other Mexican work, "Tlaxcalan Sketches" from 1971.

Stylistically the essays are quite different from each other. "Luis's Family" was shot in 35mm black and white and is very somber in outlook. "Echele Ganas" I shot with 6x6 medium format color negative film and it is happier and less full of angst.

"Luis's Family" is a very intimate portrait of a very small group of people, ten at most. "Echele Ganas" is a portrait of a larger community and includes their celebrations and provides a wider overview of their way of life and its meaning for them. With both sets of photographs there is a closeness to the people photographed.

"Echele Ganas" was worked on over a longer period of time. I was also familiar with many of the family members [of the subjects] that had moved to Philadelphia, helping them solve problems that arose from being here.

"Luis’s Family" photographs use an overcast light whereas "Echele Ganas photographs" were made for the most in bright sunshine.

From the series "Luis's Family" © Laurence Salzmann

The geography of Juárez, where "Luis’s Family" is set, was bleak and flat. There are no maguey plants to delineate the landscape

Tonalpa and the other villages where I photographed for "Echele Ganas" have a greener landscape, surrounded by mountains and some still standing forests.

"Luis's Family" is more about a culture of poverty with little hope. Sort of like the dust bowl photographs of the thirties.

"Echele Ganas" tells more of a story, about its people who leave at a very early age to work in a place where, if they are lucky, they can return in five years time with enough money to build a house and start a family. Some also lose the families they had if they stay too long. [The subjects in] "Luis’s Family" in Juárez had very little hope of escaping their impoverished life.

"Luis's Family" is a photo essay by a youthful photographer just starting out. Where one hopes one's photography can still change the world. As we grow older we learn otherwise.

"Echele Ganas" is a more mature work with more details. In "Echele Ganas" I was less concerned with the poverty of the people and more concerned with the values that held them together as a community. "Echele Ganas" has a multifaceted approach, and makes use of a video narrative to allow the subjects themselves to tell their own story.

From the series "Luis's Family" © Laurence Salzmann

"Luis's Family" relied on a poetic essay by a writer named Thomas Paine who I had invited to work on the project with me. Tom, a former US Marine, fancied himself part inheritor of Tom Paine’s legacy (a distant relative he claimed) and [also that of] James Agee. We were both perhaps influenced by Walker Evans and Agee's book entitled,  Let us Now Praise Famous Men. What young person starting out wouldn't be? Together we drove a drive-a-way car from Philadelphia to El Paso and then walked over the border to Juárez, Mexico. We slept on the floor together with the family we were documenting.

They lived next to the Rio Grande. I believe at that time Mexicans were allowed to cross the border for the day without any visas. And many did to work at jobs in El Paso.

Concern for other ways of life and presenting a visual documentation of them.

Visual outlook more developed as a result of 40 years more experience working as a documentary photographer. To use an appropriate cliché, "everything is not black and white." [There are] many shades of gray in between.

I feel that sometimes a format used in photographing dictates or gives a certain look to one's photography. [In this case], a 35mm Leica format with wide-angle 28mm lens versus a medium format 6x6 camera.

f: Anything else you'd like to add Laurence?

LS: Is this before they blindfold me?

From the series "Luis's Family" © Laurence Salzmann