Photo History: Auguste Salzmann, Frenchman in Jerusalem
This issue is a bit about a French photographer, Auguste Salzmann, but mostly about how my emotional reactions to a specific print he made, and the history behind the print.
The History Bit
Auguste Salzmann was an artist and archaeologist who waded into the scholarly fray between Felicien Caignart de Saulcy and the academic establishment, and managed to prove de Saulcy correct. Strike one for academia. De Saulcy contended that architectural fragments examined on an 1850 expedition to Jerusalem dated from the period of Kings Solomon and David. The establishment took issue with his thesis because he could only provide site drawings to support his argument. Thus, Auguste Salzmann set off for Jerusalem and returned to Paris with at least 150 negatives after a stay of four months; prints which clearly demonstrated the historical accuracy of de Saulcy’s argument.
A Time of Past and Present
Ever since discovering this body of work (which, I have to admit, I obviously haven’t seen in full or in the flesh) I’ve felt a connection, not to the photographer, but I suppose to the image or what the image represents for me.
As a photograph, this object naturally illustrates its own ambivalent temporal status; it hovers between the past moment of its capture and the present time of its existence. But, Roland Barthes takes it one step further to identify a tripartite temporal framing. He places this framework over a photograph of “Beith-Lehem” where he remarks upon the three time-states of its existence: there is at once his time, the photographer’s time and the time of Jesus.  Now, of course Bethlehem has potent religious significance for Christianity, so you might say it would have been impossible for Barthes not to have seen the time of Jesus within its visual borders.
This image, of a sarcophagus in Jerusalem, is so powerful, visually, that it has just become a part of me, internally. Don’t balk, because I know you’ll be thinking that it sounds like hokum, and to a certain extent you’d be right because this is all just my feelings, but truly it just means that when I see this image it feels right. Well, that doesn’t sound like a reasoned, well-constructed and articulate argument, you’ll be thinking. I know! Isn’t it nuts? It’s just an image of a place and a thing in a time so far removed, and yet I feel its resonance as though I were there each time I look at it.
The Emotional Connection
We have emotional connections to places, objects or moments in time that we maintain or are able to revive through images of those things.
For me, the emotional resonance I feel has always overwhelmed any self-imposed injunction to deconstruct the image itself. When I started the MA, I was concerned that my thoughts about photographs were invalid because they came from a place of emotion and sentiment, rather than logic and reasoning. But then something I’ve been thinking about lately is that no argument that is deeply thought out and thoroughly constructed could ever come from a place of clinical logic. It starts in the heart, and slowly translates to the head. If there were no emotional connection, finding the genuine desire to argue strongly for one thing or another would be impossible.
My emotional connection to Jerusalem comes mostly from my faith. These ancient photographs of Jerusalem make me feel quite close to the city and by extension the country itself. There is an emotional awareness or connection inside which translates through the photographs. In this case, I know the image exists because I know the time existed. In my head it’s fairly obvious, but you aren’t in my head…
Brief Image Analysis
Visually, of course it’s powerful; the strength of this image comes from its clean and bold lines of composition, which deliver and intersect light and shadow with clarity and elegance; the shadow-work in particular is expressive and deep. In fact, the play of light and shadow on the stonework connotes an intense heat, the likes of which may be found in such a place.
The focus of the image, however, is this stone sarcophagus, as can be seen from its placement in the centre of the frame; its delicate engraving is highlighted by the oblique light and emphasised against the unrefined stonework surrounding it, both smooth and rough, which makes its textural qualities that much greater.
For all of its evident artistry, Auguste Salzmann’s intention was not in the direction of visually pleasing aesthetics; he was there to prove a point, and prove a point he most certainly did. But, if we take pleasure from looking at these paper relics of a time now long past, we should. I love looking at the rough and smooth stone basking in the sunlight; I can feel the intense heat of the sun on these immovable objects, and imagine my hands grazing the blemished surface. There’s an intensity here that only just evades description. Aren’t you glad of that. It means I have to stop talking.
Something I stumbled across while perusing the internet for similar works was that the market for the salted paper prints from Salzmann’s Jerusalem trip seem not to be in very high demand. I can’t be 100% accurate (and this is pure conjecture on my part) because without accessing any of the art market price databases it would be impossible to say with relative clarity what the market is actually saying about Auguste Salzmann’s work.
All I can say is that looking at auction results available on auction house websites, it seems that his work isn’t greatly sought after. Which is an almighty shame to me, for the many reasons expressed above. I also have the unlikely feeling that I’ve just managed to turn a post that originally didn’t belong in any category, into a post that now belongs in all three. Ah well.
I think I’ve covered in tenuous detail the history of a photograph, the photographer, visual analysis of the photograph, tiny bit of the art market and now I’m about to tell you that a salted paper print is a thing of beauty and that I will cover its origins in more detail separately; I want to dedicate an entire post to the process and history because it deserves nothing less. Let’s just appreciate the simple elegance of this photograph without furring up matters.
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Vintage Classics, 1993, p. 97.
- Auguste Salzmann, Jerusalem, Sarcophage Judaique, 1854, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283150 [last accessed July 23, 2020]