Jason Francisco, Laurence Salzmann: A Life with Others, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 2021, 390 pages, 236 illustrations.
In 2018, the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia acquired the archive of the acclaimed Philadelphia photographer Laurence Salzmann, whose career in photography and film spans nearly six decades.  To accompany the acquisition, Kislak commissioned me to write the first critical study of Salzmann's career, published in 2021 as Laurence Salzmann:  A Life with Others.  The book is available for purchase through the Kislak Center.
What follows is the preface and first section of the book, "Thinking Photography."
Jason Francisco, Chania, Crete, 2023

This book is the first critical consideration of the fifty-plus year career of Laurence Salzmann, whose archive was acquired in 2018 by the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Salzmann’s long career has touched an exceptionally broad range of inquiries, which include (in no particular order): cultural anthropology, folk and folklore studies, race and ethnicity studies, American studies, Latin American studies, Romanian studies, Turkish studies, Jewish studies, memory studies, migration studies, Holocaust and post-Holocaust studies, post-communist studies, post-colonial studies, urban studies, and peasant studies, among others. Penn acquired the archive with the confidence that Salzmann’s work has enduring value for researchers and the general public now and in the future—not merely as a visual record of times and places, but also as a sustained interpretive practice across times and places, motivated by both specific and universal concerns. This book, then, is an inquiry into what Salzmann has meant by an artistic life, a pursuit of life-wisdom in visual form, unfolding step by step with a dynamism that defies easy categorization.
This book operates on two levels. First, it functions as a guide to the contents of Salzmann’s archive. The essays that form the bulk of this book are close readings of what I consider to be the major works of Salzmann’s career, as well as some of the smaller works. Admittedly, no retrospective can account for almost six decades of sustained work, comprising dozens of projects, tens of thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of film, so in a strict sense this book
is incomplete. It is nothing like a stand-in for all that Salzmann has done, rather it is a critical introduction.
My goal is to show pathways through Salzmann’s creative preoccupations, to be followed further, and to be departed from. Second, this book functions as a kind of conceptual toolkit for interpreting Salzmann’s work, which I hope will be useful for future engagements of his rich archive, and perhaps other bodies of work also. Photography’s complexity as a medium, and the complexity of Salzmann’s accomplishments with it, make such a toolkit an intellectual responsibility.
The opening section of the book, “Thinking Photography,” addresses a series of theoretical issues that inform my arguments for Salzmann’s specific works and his general importance. General readers can skip this section, and proceed to the essays of Part I. The bulk of this book is not written in the language of specialists, though it does reach back to make connections with the opening part.
In 1969, at the very time the young Salzmann was cutting his teeth as a photographer, Susan Sontag observed trenchantly that “art is certainly now, mainly, a form of thinking”—and this remains true in most corners of the art world.(1) But the enormous expansion of the art world in the last fifty years, and the migration of photography from a peripheral to a central medium of artistic practice—in many ways the central medium, and also a medium without a center, a
complex of lens-based practices with histories but no hierarchies—all of this has nuanced our understandings of visual thinking, while only sometimes clarifying it as if from a distance. Indeed, essential terms to describe that thinking have yet to be invented. For example, the English language lacks a word for one of central topics of this book, namely the combined act of seeing and reading at once. I am not speaking of an esoteric activity, rather something that I suspect many people have experienced, though without a word to name that experience. Not merely to glance at a photograph, but really to see a photograph is to study it, to interpret
it, to tell stories from and about it, often to re-render it in words. And to read a photograph is to observe it well, to behold its meanings, to be given a power of (in)sight by means of it. To engage with photographs is to see-read them, to see-and-read, see-yet-read, see-to-read, see-having-read, and so forth. A book inventing the missing words for what photography asks of us is a project
for another time.
My see-reading of Salzmann takes shape around a broad thesis, pivoting on a distinction between what can be called historical consciousness and magical consciousness. Salzmann’s career is a story of an artist working with both types of consciousnesses—finding and following their distinct visual forms with a mixture of intuition and planning—for the sake of inducing and modulating these forms of consciousness in his audiences.
As I try to show, historical and magical consciousness each form a through-line of Salzmann’s artistic life, the two together forming the track on which his projects ride. Besides describing the terms and stakes of his projects, my task, as I give it to myself, is to articulate how these two forms of consciousness operate aesthetically—how Salzmann makes from them a distinct poetics of seeing—and in so doing, articulating why I consider him a very important photographer of his generation. My claims have nothing to do with Salzmann’s position in the art world. For most of his career, he has been largely indifferent to the stumbling chase after visibility, reputation and the processes of self-commodification to which career-conscious artists submit themselves, and sometimes even learn to like. Rather my argument proceeds from a careful look into his accomplishments themselves, the ambitions he set for himself and the mastery he found by way of these ambitions, both in the realm of the social and historical, and equally of the fantastical and the mystic.
While Salzmann’s career is in many regards a story of refinement at border-crossing, quite literal geopolitical borders and also the borders between peoples and races, also those that would separate documentary from art, I see his restlessness with borders as propelled by a consistent ethical impulse connected to the Jewish values he inherited, which have framed his life. A particular ethical seriousness characterizes Salzmann’s work, organically and not didactically. Salzmann’s work begins from a fundamental valuation of difference and divergence, a conception of the universal not as an agency of normativity, rather as that unique thing which affirms the unique qualities of all things, to quote the American-Jewish artist Ben Shahn.(2) Again and again, Salzmann’s work spells out a commitment to the uniqueness of each human being, soul, spirit, body—each made, as Jewish tradition says, in the image of God. Again and again, his work
undertakes the task of remembering the stranger, the marginalized, the ostracized, the unseen.(3)
Likewise, Salzmann’s life’s work takes seriously the obligation to repair the world—what Jewish tradition calls tikkun olam—and to do so through curiosity and questioning, which is to say the responsibilities that questions bring. Beyond a critical understanding of the positional awareness of the differences between insiders and outsiders, Salzmann’s work is concerned with the practice of other-centric ethics—a xenophilia made live in oneself. His projects explore what it looks like to affirm others on their terms rather than merely our own, and what it looks like to defend those vulnerable to ignorance and stereotype.
In the sustaining of these investigations over decades, Salzmann emerges by turns as an American, an internationalist, and a Jew—a dynamic identify in shifting balances. I am quite prepared to dispute my own preparation to write this book. I am not a scholar of any of the fields that Salzmann’s work engages. I can only approach Salzmann as the person I am: an artist working primarily in photography, with a background in philosophy, history and politics. Because I am a photographer, certain things are evident to me that I think are also evident to Salzmann. Almost without trying, I see in Salzmann variants of what I myself have learned over the last thirty years of my own life in photography: that Salzmann’s way of photographing is a particular blend of spontaneity and discipline, that it involves a particular kind of half-planning, intuition and anticipation as a way of working with open-ended problems that have multiple solutions, and that it is a continuous leveraging of clarity against ambiguity, confidence against incomplete knowing. By default, my presentation in this book reflects a view of Salzmann from inside these ways of knowing.
I should say from the outset that it is beyond the scope of this book to consider every one of Salzmann’s projects, in a career spanning more than fifty years. A complete list of his photoworks and filmworks is provided as an appendix. It is impossible also to present here anything close to a visual representation of even one of his projects. The images that appear here should not be taken as a distillation of his life’s work. Rather I have chosen them because I find them useful in studying the archive. If my presentation is successful, it will compel readers to go directly to the work either online or by visiting the Kislak Center. Further, this book is not a biography of Salzmann, a recounting of his own personal story. Some biographical details appear in the text, others in the chronology he has written, and still others in the interview with his wife, Dr. Ayşe Gürsan-Salzmann—the chronology and interview included as appendices. Primarily, however,
this book is a turning toward his work, not his life in its times.
On the other hand, I cannot begin to write about Salzmann’s work as someone might in forty years or a hundred—hoping very much that a century from now we will have seen a flowering of engagements with his legacy. I cannot write as if I did not know him as personally as I do, and as if I did not love and value him as I do. And so it is fair to say that this is a book of thoughts, pushed from behind by feelings. For this reason it is, I suppose, a book of live engagements and not forensic analyses. For the flaws of this approach, there is no rhetorical
self-inoculation that I know of, only a willingness to be mistaken and look again.

Photographs are paradoxically among the most accessible and the most complex forms of visual culture. To speak of a photographic image is to speak of an image made by the convergence of multiple technologies—optics, mechanics, chemistry, electronics—some of which require practice and expertise, and some which a child or even a non-human animal can use. To speak of photographic meaning is to speak of what such images force us to contend with—the acts of interpretation prompted by and concentrated in them. To speak of a photograph is to speak of an image that is often solicitous toward its audiences, inviting viewers into its plainness or its spectacle, its empathy or its coldness, its realism or its recondite description. And this is just to say that to speak of a photograph is not to speak of an image that is self-meaningful, or an image that retains whatever meaning is imputed to it or extracted from it.
Photography is and always has been a dynamically unstable field. Part media, part science, part art, part vernacular culture, photography sits at the intersection of literature, philosophy, history, politics, theater, cinema, technology, and painting. It is, on the one hand, a means of visualizing these conceptual overlaps, what the crossings of these inquiries look like by way of light reflecting from the surfaces of the world. On the other hand, photography reveals the gaps, fault lines, zones of cancellation and vanishment that appear when these inquiries cross. The overwhelming majority of the billions of photographs made by various means in the nearly two centuries since photography’s invention are, I venture, unselfconscious and unself-critical undertakings, but this is not to say that any photograph is interpretively simple. Even the seemingly most naive photographs present us with the complication of discerning mimesis from transformation, the medium’s capacity to record and copy passively, as against its capacity to alter, extend and intensify seeing.
If photographs ferry us into and through the shared, observable world, they do so along currents of distinctly subjective tendencies, temperaments and biases. If they communicate persuasively, with authenticity and (according to the dominant mythology) involuntary truthfulness, they have also been continuously subject to distrust that spies in them manipulation, distortion and falsification. If photographs are simultaneously windows onto the world and mirrors of photographers’ concerns, they are also stand-ins for both, brokering access to outer and inner
realities, and blocking entry as much as they allow it. In some measure, photography can be defined not merely as a visual claiming of the world, but as the slippage between the world and its image—the difference between whatever we envision the unrepresented world to be on its own, and whatever we conclude appearances and illusions to be on their own. A fixing of appearances that is empty of fixed meaning, a method for making illusions endure, a visual convening of new and old, arriving and departed, fresh and expired, discovered and invented and forgotten purposes, it is fair to describe photographs as radical objects of culture, as entropic as they are fertile.
All of this is to say that critically approaching Salzmann’s photographs means wading into the complications that characterize photography as a medium. Beyond the general issues are the complications of his own handlings and preoccupations. Of the general issues, three are especially important, which I will call the problems of severance, agency and language.
Reproducing visual appearances with more or less convincing exactitude, photographs generally describe their contents through severance, isolation, and compression, fragmenting space and time in order to create a greater imagination of space and time in which the image participates. The photographic frame typically seems to have been cut out of the spherical whole of space, often in such a way that viewer feels the ability almost to predict what exists to be seen outside the frame (a power almost never associated with painting and drawing). Likewise, the photographic “moment” is typically one in an imagined procession of moments, extracted and magnified. This moment is so strongly related to a flow of time that the viewer may feel the ability almost to predict what came before and what came after the moment pictured—or at least certain, when the moment seems of indeterminate duration, that the time of the picture belongs somehow in history and not just in imagination.
Consider, for example, a photograph from Salzmann’s 1999-2003 project La Lucha/The Struggle (Figure 1). The picture situates us in the midst of a relay of guesses about what we do not see as one method of accounting for what we do see. Seven figures are arrayed across the picture’s horizon line, which is itself situated about halfway along its vertical axis. These figures are spaced at regular intervals, without quite forming a symmetrical design. The light is flat and even from corner to corner through the picture, the space enclosed by the concrete wall and floor suffused with a soft glow.
Inasmuch as the picture can be said to begin from its edges, what can we say about the place where this scene is happening? Are we below ground or maybe on a roof? Is the light coming from the sky or from windows? How high is the wall? How long is it? At the far left, partially blocked by the figure, are what appear to be two steps—where do they lead? The wooden pallet at right, what is it leaning against, and what does that unseen surface tell us about the shape of the room itself? The picture poses these and many related questions about the space it shows, and does so because of the inbuilt logic of pictorial severance that is foundation to lens-based images. It answers none of them.
Similarly, the image poses similar questions about the time interval it shows. We might guess that the exposure was 1/125 of a second, but this or some similar fraction of a second does not begin to explain the senses of time present in this picture.(4) Several temporal senses that seem to congregate in this photograph. The concrete environment itself is, of course, static, and imparts a general sense of temporal stasis, with the cracking of the floor and the chipping of the wall
indicating slow-to-develop effects of seasons and years. Against this stasis, the figures seem in their places provisionally, in the midst of some process of change and movement. But how to understand this movement? Of the seven figures, four of them are standing at rest—numbers 1, 3, 5, 7 from left, and possibly number 2 also, depending on how we read the shifting of his weight onto his right leg and the differing positions of his arms. The standing times of these figures seem to be of varying durations, with number 3 perhaps the longest and most indeterminate. Figures 4 and 6 are most evidently in motion, in mid-step, but how quickly are they moving, and at a regular or irregular pace? As with the imagination of space, the inbuilt logic of pictorial severance begs questions that the picture cannot answer about how time passes in this place.
In my understanding, at least four types of interpretive claim are present in photographs, and what photographs “mean” is, more specifically, how we understand these claims in balance. I think of these claims as agencies operating in and through photographs—as means for controlling interpretation, as powers that act on our understanding. If I am right in this approach, photographs are, properly speaking, sites where these agencies convene, and at the same time vehicles for emitting or disseminating them culturally. These core four agencies exerting
interpretive claim are as follows:
A. The subject to which the image refers, often the world toward which the lens is directed. Photographic meaning is prototypically a matter of strong reference, such that the image is understood not merely to point to something outside itself, but to be inhabited by that something—not merely to reproduce appearances, but visually to embody what appears, to instantiate it. In this sense, the photographic image shares an identity with whatever we name and identify in it. This sharing of identity is commonsensical: we show a photograph of what we ate at a restaurant and say, “this is their cheesecake, it’s fantastic,” without thinking to say that the image is an illusion or a rendering of the cheesecake, though this is what it is. A simple thought experiment proves the point. Imagine being shown two versions of one of Salzmann’s Bucharest trolly-riders from his 1976-1976 project
“Souvenirs of a Recent Time” (Figure 2). The two images are visually indistinguishable, but you are told that one of them is a photograph and one is a painting. That piece of conceptual information is, I think, enough to make you see the images differently. To identify the picture as a photograph is to be led to think that a window of an actual trolly in Bucharest, and an actual building reflected in it, and an actual figure behind it, an actual ice and precipitation on that window are significantly responsible for what the image looks like. To identify the same picture as a painting is to be led to think that an artist’s imagination is significantly responsible for what the image looks like. With the photograph, the world pictured acquires heuristic agency, a claim on the meaning of the photograph and often the first claim. That the world outside the image has any such agency at all is a defining quality of photography as against other types of images. Or to put the point differently: photography carries a cultural need for a type of
image caused by the subject seen.(5)
B. A photographer’s specific perception, vision, reading, handling of the subject.
The decisions that a photographer makes are, of course, crucial at every level.
For observational photography, these decisions begin from the simple and difficult
questions of where and when: exactly where in space to put the camera and where to point it, which is to say where to want it put and pointed; and exactly when to release the shutter? And they quickly given way how and why: with what equipment, technique, form of delivery; and for what expressive or communicative tasks? In the case of Salzmann’s Bucharest trolly, the decision to approach this window of this trolly on this day from this height, with this camera and this lens focused in this way, these and a thousand other decisions were made within a nexus of intentions and motivated guesses. Modernists at least from the time of Alfred Stieglitz have understood these choices as exercisings of the very kinds of skills that govern other fine arts practices, i.e. those that privilege the artist’s
control, skill, intentionality. The modernist tradition has typically understood the artist’s agency as a statement, even a reclamation of authorial prerogative, as against the other agencies at work in the creation of photographic meaning.
C. The medium itself, its technologies, properties, and capacities and characteristics, which are understood to operate independently of the world and of the artist. It is photography as a medium, for example, to which we commonsensically attribute things that we cannot normally see except through photography. Unaided human vision cannot discern whether the hooves of a horse at full gallop all leave the ground at once, cannot discern the micro-droplets of venom sprayed by a terrified bombardier beetle, and cannot discern exactly what remarkable sphere a mining detonation causes to propel through the air—all of which we can see clearly from short exposure photography. Likewise, human
vision cannot see what a cumulative half second of time looks like, much less an hour or a year, though photography shows these things to us. Unaided human vision cannot see deep depth of field or change the proportions of visual phenomena or change the brightness and contrastiness and color palette of the retinal image, but all of these things appear in photography because of as part of the technology’s agency. In Salzmann’s trolly photograph, the technical particularities of the camera and lens and film and developer Salzmann used all have a claim on this picture, which would have been different with different equipment.
D. The authorizing contexts in which images are presented, deployed and used. Examples include news and information, advertising, editorial work, fine art, historical and cultural record-making, personal and family memory-keeping, and others.(6) To speak of authorized contexts for interpreting photographs is to speak of the discursive frameworks that stand behind and with photographs, which effectively transform a photograph from something to be seen into something also to be read. Such authorizing contexts direct the viewer into particular interpretive pathways, which lead into a shared cognitive space within which the image makes—rises to—sense. The same photograph is liable to shift meanings as it shifts authorizing contexts. Salzmann’s trolly photograph would jerk interpretively back and forth (like a trolly itself) if, for example, we were to encounter it on a wanted poster in a Bucharest police precinct, as against seeing it on a Bucharest billboard advertising the latest recording of Taraf de Haïdouks, as against its appearance in a history exhibition on public transportation during the communist period in Romania, as against finding it on the cover of a bitter emigrant poet’s memoir, titled I Never Loved You, Romania.
Photography’s relationship to language is crucial and not incidental to what we construe to be photographic meaning. Sometimes words assign meaning to images, as for example a newspaper caption or social media tag (in both of these cases enacting the conventions of authorizing context). Sometimes words propose meaning for images, as for example an advertising slogan, or a wall text in a museum exhibition, or an essay by a blowhard academic droning on too long about the philosophic esoterica of photography. Or to put it most succinctly, words catalyze photographs into meaning. Language acts—written or verbal, implicit or explicit—lead us to seephotographs, to look into a photograph and not just at it. The addition of language makes the image into a picture of something, which is to say whatever incomplete coherence emerges in the imagination when we try to account for what the image is showing us.
Photography is often spoken of as a language, but I have never found this idea compelling, even as a metaphor. More accurate, I think, is to say that photography is a hybrid act of showing and telling, a showing that beckons acts of telling which, in turn, affirm the showing as a condition of shownness. There is no word in English for the fusion of showing and telling that we encounter routinely in photography, much less the strange combination of contingency and mutability of that fusion, just as there is no word to describe an image turned into a state of language and vice versa, no words other than metaphors for the mental acts that condense images into words, or that thicken words into vision. (We can invent such a word, “to showtell” or “to tellshow” and the cognitive dissonance that results deserves exploration.) Likewise there is no word in English for the particular fusion of seeming-to-be and being-despite-appearances that defines the
photographic illusion—an image that is as unreal as any imitation but more abundantly realistic for that unrealness.
But for all the insistence with which photographs prompt storytelling, this is not to say that photography is a narrative medium. It is not, or at least not blithely so. Without words, and before and after words, photographs are simply evocative and implicative, closer to the condition of poetry than to narrative proper. To consider photography by itself to be visual storytelling,(7) we need to ignore a great deal about what we cannot understand from photographs, which includes even the most basic distinctions between cause and consequence, starting point and ending point, reason and unreason. To return to Salzmann’s photograph from Cuba (Figure 1), the picture confirms nothing about plot, character, theme, symbolism, conflict and resolution, and other rudimentary elements of what we call narrative.
Are these seven figures part of a group or a team, working together, or are they individuals who happen to be together just then? How often do they come here, and for how many years? We know they are athletes, but who is more skilled and who less? Who is physically stronger and who weaker? What are the interpersonal dynamics of the group? Is there a leader, and who is it? Is there a contest for dominance? What can we say about the character and personalities and
psychologies of these wrestlers? Why does the figure at the far right hold a shoe? We can only begin to speculate, to impute, to venture in words.
The extent and intensity of narrative indeterminacy in this picture is typical, not atypical, of photographic images, both those made using realistic pictorial forms and abstraction. Some would conclude that photography represents a crisis of narrative, others that photography should be understood as something other than narrative in the first place. Again, there is no ready word to describe what happens when images seem to invite storytelling as a response to (the crisis of
interpretive disjunction surrounding) what they show, when images accommodate such stories with out end or regard for the contradictions that may emerge, and when images even serve to authenticate the stories that attach to them—what happens when images do all of this with blithe indifference and radical disregard. Taking the liberty to try to invent a word, I would say that photographs are better called paranarrative (to the side of narrative), or narrativistic (narrative-like), or antenarrative (before narrative), circumnarrative (around narrative), the latter particularly attractive when it comes to articulating the rhetorical tricksterism that
photography’s narrative solicitations trade on.
It is worth making one further point about the language we use to describe the ways that words mediate photographs, broker the complications of photographic appearance without ever resolving the internal turbulences. The word “caption”—an anchoring text for a photographic image—shares an etymology with what has become the most common term to describe a photograph, its ability to “capture” something important, and also now a routine term for a technical aspect of the photographic process, as in “digital capture,” which is to say digitization.(8)
“Caption” and “capture” are in turn linked to the words “captive” and “captivity,” which is to say that we are speaking of a metaphor: photography as an act of holding captive, confining, imprisoning something in the condition of an image.(9) Why has this metaphor become dominant, so much so that it may seem even not to be a metaphor? The answer to this question seems to me a further question: what cultural need does such an image type fulfill—an image that seizes, restrains, controls, holds what it shows in virtual bondage? Why should we not say that what we mean when we say a photograph “captures” something is that it captures our imagination of something? There are, after all, other metaphors that equally well account for what a photograph does, including the opposite, namely release something into awareness, let free an encounter with the world and the self, circulate a play of interpretation. Instead of speaking of a photograph capturing the world, we could equally well speak of a photograph prolonging it across time and place, setting it loose and setting it up to be lost.
John Berger observed some decades ago, I think correctly, that we should not mistake photography’s capacity to preserve appearances with a capacity to preserve meaning.(10) Rather, we should approach photographic appearances, in Salzmann’s case an archive of them, as a portal into the play of agencies that we discern in them. Across Salzmann’s archive we encounter a gap between what a picture is of and what a picture is about, which is to say a constant irresolution
and the anxiety that accompanies it. Notwithstanding the effort to articulate a way through this irresolution, for example to provide an account of Salzmann’s artistic intentions (which I will mostly not do, because it is not my role to ventriloquize him) or speak of Salzmann’s projects as occupying various positions in a field of possible positions (which I will do), Salzmann’s works will remain uncommitted. If photographs emerge into meaning by way of catalytic uses of language, then strictly speaking, what we mean by photography is an image-text space, a zone of
convergences between images and texts—which is also a zone of divergences and departures, where the image appears (all over again) prone to meaning, or subject to it, vulnerable to it, perhaps at the mercy of it. To wish for an easier, more stable, less paradoxical situation is to wish for a medium other than photography.
In 1983, the Czech-Jewish philosopher Vilém Flusser (1920-1991) published what
has become an important text in photography’s theoretical literature, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, in which he studies photography as a visual recording technology that is also cultural techne.(11) Flusser approaches photography as a tool for encountering reality objectively, which yields images that are paradoxically more real than the realities to which they refer. Flusser questions what it means to treat such images as sources of knowledge, both informationally and morally—knowledge about how to live. The intricacies of Flusser’s arguments are not my concern here; rather the predicating terms of his exploration, which I find powerful tools for approaching Salzmann’s aesthetics and his ethics.(12)
Flusser understands cultural consciousness to operate in two realms simultaneously, which he calls the magical and the historical. He associates magical consciousness with the production of images, and historical consciousness with the production of texts.(13) In Flusser’s account of magical consciousness, things happen without causes and consequences; they gain meaning through temporal, spatial and symbolic association with other things. Time in magical
consciousness does not describe a linear or progressive unfolding of things that happen only once, but the appearance things that recur in continuously adjusting meanings and implications. Flusser does not liken magical consciousness to music, but the analogy seems apt enough: the chorus in a song establishes a certain repetitional logic, and recurs with changing effect, according to what comes with and between its instances. In speaking of magical consciousness, we are speaking of the connotative powers that one thing can exert against another, the forces
of attraction and repulsion that suggestion, implication and inference generate.
If magical consciousness describes a closed mode of signification in which signs (images, sounds, words) gain meaning in a modulative relation to one another, historical consciousness describes an open mode, in which signs gain meaning in relation to something outside the system of sign-making itself. In historical consciousness, things happen exactly once, in a succession of causes and consequences that describe linear time. Historical consciousness involves a type of
abstract thinking that brings an apriori demand to the problem of representation, namely “to clear a path to the world behind it,” in Flusser’s words.(14) As such, historical consciousness undertakes a decoding operation or a meta-coding operation in pursuit of coherent reference between the world understood to exist outside representation, and the internal coherence of a representational system.
If Flusser’s distinction is right, photography’s distinctness as an image type can be
explained as its capacities to function on both the terms of historical and magical consciousness. The magical dimension of the photograph derives from the interpretive irresolutions with which virtually all photographs are bound up. There is, as I have sketched above, the temporally, spatially and narratively marooned character of the photograph. And there is the predicament of the photograph bearing an imprint (as it were) from two sides—the imprint of the world itself, whose light-reflecting surfaces are necessary to make any image at all, and of the actions of the image-maker, without whose decisions the image would likewise not exist. And there is the situation of the photograph’s lack of independence from the technology’s own capacity to produce images, and a concomitant lack of independence from the discursive environments into which photographs are thrust, and the changing tasks with which they are invested. The upshot is
a normalized condition of essencelessness, an inability to reduce the image to any of its contributing elements. Rather the photograph in its essencelessness is precisely the ground for magical consciousness.
In the photograph’s magical dimension, the present is always present, is always still present—a present that is continuously arising in presence, indeed that cannot help but endure in presence as we look into the image. But inasmuch as the present in presence was made for a future that will regard it as the past, the magical consciousness induced by a photograph lies just here: in the photograph’s special capacity not to scant time’s hybrid character, which crosses present, future and past. And further, in the photograph’s magical dimension absence is also ineluctably present. The enduring illusion of the present precisely points to a not-yet-arrived, absent future, which in turn points back to an already-gone, now-passed present, which also a face of absence. In other words, both presence and absence are hybrid presentations of present, past and future. In this situation, it is only natural that meaning should arise in the magical way—through suggestion, imputation, association, inference, symbolic resonance.
In the photograph’s historical dimension, the present was always present—was necessarily present—a present that can only not endure in presence. It was a present in a succession of presents, one following the next, marking out a fixed chronological progression, notwithstanding that the terms describing it are relative to our position in it (yesterday’s present is today’s past, and tomorrow’s past is today’s present, and so forth). The historical consciousness induced by
a photograph lies exactly here: in time’s unamalgamated character, which distinguishes one present from another according to familiar rules. In history, no two presents can occur at once, and the order in which they occur cannot be determined in advance or changed afterward. In a photograph’s historical dimension, however ambiguous and interpretively opaque a photograph may be, it participates in a temporal reality greater than itself, and it communicates that reality, which operates through it. If in magical consciousness the photograph produces a sense of time, in historical consciousness it receives a value in time. If in magical consciousness the photograph gains and loses imaginative texture, in historicalconsciousness it transmits a non-imagined actuality. If in magical consciousness the photograph creates and sustains subjective experience, in historical consciousness it relays an objective condition persisting through subjective experience, conditioning it from without.
Salzmann’s career is unusual for the ways that he works within and with both types of consciousness, leveraging one against the other, testing one with the other, infusing them into one another in varying proportions. There are certain projects that lead with or privilege historical consciousness—call them documentary works—and others that give advantage to magical consciousness, which could be called art photography. I am not particularly fond of either label, inasmuch as neither accounts for the senses in which the not-dominant consciousness is always present, beyond which there is the danger of reinforcing the stereotype that documentary is or should be artless, and that the art in art photography is or should be a subverting of “mere” documentary. Salzmann’s documentary work, whose purpose is an acute consciousness of and in history, is shot through with a deep feeling for the magical dimensions of photographic images, not as aesthetic surplus but as a probing of that historical consciousness itself. And Salzmann’s projects that wander away from documentary purposes—and there is no phase of his long career in which he failed to wander—return to touch historical consciousness at various points, folding them into the journey that magical consciousness follows.
As such, there are legitimately distinct ways of describing Salzmann’s practice. On one hand, he could be called non-committal, insofar as his documentary works consistently fall short of message-making, and his fine art works refuse to valorize—read: fetishize—the familiar conceits of originality, mastery, and rarity. This is not to say that his fine art works lack these elements, or that his documentary works have nothing to teach or advocate. But Salzmann does not push either didacticism or aestheticism as terms of primary engagement, and for some observers, he will seem to have incompletely embraced the documentary and artistic problems he sets out for himself. On the other hand, Salzmann can fairly be called insistent, even relentless in pursuit of what I read as a holistic vision.
Again and again, in place after place he takes on the problem of pointing historical and magical consciousnesses toward one another, and creating varieties of intersection between them. In Salzmann’s vision, in my reading of the ways as it has taken shape over a lifetime, historical consciousness resists consigning imagination to the realm of the subjective, and magical consciousness resists isolating the outer world in the realm of the objective.
In what follows, I consider Salzmann’s major works within these two registers of his works, looking into the ways his integrative aesthetics operate on a case by case basis.

1. Susan Sontag, “Aesthetics of Silence,” in Styles of Radical Will, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.
2. Ben Shahn, The Shape of Content, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1957, p. 47.
3. Concern for the stranger (Hebrew: ger) is of supreme importance in the Jewish religious tradition. The Torah repeats the exhortation to “remember the stranger” no fewer than 36 times, the most of any commandment, and spells out more laws for dealing with the protection of the stranger than with anything else, including
honoring God, observing Shabbat, and so forth.
4. I do not know the particulars of this exposure, but I can reverse engineer it to some extent: Salzmann used a medium format Hasselblad 500 C/M for this project, probably with an 50mm f/4 Zeiss Distagon. The negative was made on Kodak Tri-X film rated at 400 ISO. Guessing that the wall was some 20 feet from where Salzmann stood, and studying the depth of field, I would call the exposure f/5.6 at 1/125.
5.  Elaborating the photograph in classically Aristotelian terms seems to me a useful exercise in grasping the senses in which we commonly understand the world’s responsibility for the photographic image. In Aristotle’s scheme, the photograph’s material cause is the photographic technology used, including camera, lens, analogue enlarger or digital printer, etc.; the formal cause is the image form these materials can and do make, e.g. the look of a telephoto lens; the efficient cause is the photographer; and the final cause is the world itself rendered in the image, in Aristotle’s words, “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done.” See Aristotle, Metaphysics V2.
6. What I am calling authorizing contexts could arguably amount to a matter of photographic genre, but to use this term calls down complications. To speak of commonly ordained uses of photography, with attending conventions and modes of reception, is to speak of something different—really to speak across—traditional genres in visual art, which are also sometimes grafted onto photography, such as portraiture, landscape, still life, history painting, or scenes of everyday life.
7. For didactic purposes, I might suggest a loose syllogism on this point: photography is to poetry as cinema is to prose. This is not to say that poetry cannot be narrative, pragmatic, informational or straightforward, or that prose cannot be lyrical, expressive, imaginative or experiential. These would be stupid assertions on their face. But like photography, poetry tends to isolate things as a way of considering them, while cinema, like prose, de-isolates things. Like photography, poetry tends toward an encounter with inwardly or outwardly dilated moments, while cinema, like prose, tends toward a passage through moments well concatenated. Like photography, poetry is an art of saying something else by saying something precisely, while cinema, like prose, is the art of saying something precisely so that it can also be said otherwise.
8. Caption, capture, captive, captivity, captivate, also capable and capability all derive from the Latin “captus,” past participle of the verb “capere,” meaning “to take” or “to seize.” Interestingly, “capture” turns out to be the etymological cousin of the English word “have,” both sharing the same Proto-Indo- European root “kap,” “to grasp.” “Have” is further linked to a word like haven, whose original meaning is “a place that holds ships;” etymology becomes poetry when a place of sanctuary (“haven”) shares a root with the condition of imprisonment (“captivity”).
9. Insofar as we understand photographs to “contain” or “capture” what they show, strictly speaking the photograph operating in an authorizing context seems to retain or store a visual reading.
10. Photographs, Berger writes, “offer appearances—with all the credibility and gravity we normally lend to appearances—prised away from their meaning.” See John Berger, “Uses of Photography,” in About Looking, New York, Vintage, 1980, p. 55.
11. Vilém Flusser, Für eine Philosophie der Fotographie, published in English as Towards a Philosophy of Photography, trans. Anthony Mathews, London, Reaktion Books, 2000.
12. Flusser’s analysis is unsatisfying on many levels, including its cribbed investigation of photography’s semiotics, its conceptual fawning over poorly grasped technical sides of photography, and its refusal to address
actual images made by actual photographers in actual circumstances. The latter turns into a significant problem, inasmuch as photography in general eventually becomes photographs in particular, which talk back to theory in inconvenient ways. My interest in Flusser is not in recuperating the flaws and limitations of his thinking, but repurposing certain of his basic assertions, which I find insightful if directed differently than he himself thought to direct them. Thus my interest in Flusser is apart from the claims that he makes concerning the differences
between traditional and technological images; the “orders” of abstraction in traditional images, texts, and technical images; the hierarchies of perceptual and conceptual thinking with regard to images and texts; and the “history”
of magical consciousness’ gradual re-investiture in historical consciousness, and of historical consciousness’ investiture in the imagination.
13. Flusser’s account of the relationship between the image and the text is my mythic than historical, essentially a contest between idolatry and what he calls textolatry, in which writing arises to conquer the traditionally made image, and does conquer it, leading to a counter-conquest by a new, technological image-type emblematized by photography.
14. Flusser, op. cit., 10. Flusser’s point seems to be that historical consciousness is abstract insofar as it involves a process of removal: to convey anything about reality already involves removing it from a pre- or extra- representational state into a condition of representation.