Faith and Photography: Auguste Salzmann in the Holy Land @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 40 black and white photographs, framed in brown wood and matted, and hung against grey walls in the three room gallery space. All of the works are salted paper prints made from paper negatives in 1854, and later published in 1856 in the album Jerusalem: A Study and Photographic Reproduction of the Holy City. A few of the plates (including the title page of the album) are shown in glass vitrines. The prints are sized roughly 9×13 (or reverse). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Leveraging the unparalleled power of its 19th century photography collections, the Met has been on quite a run in the past several years. Deep dive monographic exhibitions on the work of Linnaeus Tripe (reviewed here) and Charles Marville (here) have been matched by tighter selections of prints by Carleton Watkins (here) and Julia Margaret Cameron (here) and further supported by a monumental survey of Civil War photography (here) led by the work of Alexander Gardner, Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, and others, all in just the past three years alone. With patient meticulousness, the Met’s curators are slowly delivering a comprehensive survey of the key figures and bodies of photographic work from the 19th century, and doing so with a superlative level of scholarship, attention to detail, and educational breadth.

The newest installment in this program is a narrow single subject summary of Auguste Salzmann’s important Jerusalem album from 1865. While many Grand Tour photographers visited the most famous landmarks in the Middle East in the 19th century, Salzmann was much more systematic and thorough, applying a methodical archeological approach to some 68 sites across the city of Jerusalem (there are 174 individual plates in the album), paying particular attention to those locations and structures with biblical importance. This show edits that comprehensive number down to a tight 40 prints, giving us an easily digestible summary view of Salzmann’s unique mix of photography, science, and religion.

From a historical perspective, Salzmann’s approach was particularly useful, as it was far more in depth than the predictable tourist vistas and famous views of his contemporaries. His strategy was to carefully telescope in, starting with wide multi-frame panoramas of the city from afar, followed by images of the various city gates and key building facades/exteriors from multiple angles and vantage points, and ending with up close studies of brickwork details, carved reliefs, and windows. His results document the city in structured layers that get peeled away like nesting dolls, each image leading further down toward the tactile surfaces, and several of his views reduce the walls to surprisingly minimalist planes in light and dark.

Salzmann was particularly drawn to sites and stories found in the bible. His images of the Valley of Jehosophat make the rolling hillsides dotted with white rocks and saints’ tombs feel desolate and sun scalded – the site of the Last Judgment was indeed a harsh and unforgiving landscape. Similarly, Salzmann paid specific, scholarly attention to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the site of Jesus’ crucifixion), capturing it apses, domes, and jumbled add-ons with an attentive eye for arched windows and brickwork, getting his nose right up to the details of capitals and the bas relief above the main door. He clearly wanted to feel this particular place from every angle, his French heritage coming through in a detailed examination of a cross in engraved silver, a gift of Louis XIII.

One of the highlights of this selection of prints is Salzmann’s repeated use of deep black tonalities, a relative rarity in 19th century processes. His images of the Tomb of the Judges center on a rectangular void so enveloping it feels like it might lead to the center of the Earth. Salzmann also repeatedly features bands of dark soil against washed out white skies, the contrast giving the views added punch. And other studies of enclosures, cloisters, and colonnades use the darkness of the cast shadows as a key compositional feature. These rich blacks, as well as the crisp detail found in many of Salzmann’s studies of wall reliefs and inscriptions, remind us that given the available technology, Salzmann’s level of photographic craftsmanship was consistently high.

This show has been thoughtfully edited to a satisfyingly memorable “just right” size, displaying just enough of the album to see the breadth and intelligence of Salzmann’s efforts and limiting the exhibit to a minimum of plates to avoid the dulling effect of additional images of secondary and tertiary locations. This succinctness allows Salzmann’s pictures to be quietly thrilling, cementing his place as a centuries-old traveler with a surprisingly perceptive and modern eye.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there of course no posted prices. Unbound plates from Salzmann’s Jerusalem album do find their way into the secondary markets from time to time, with recent single image prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $18000.

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