Laurence Salzmann’s photographs explore animal-human bonds, without sentimentality, at Art on the Avenue


Laurence Salzmann’s photographs explore animal-human bonds, without sentimentality, at Art on the Avenue

Miles Orvell writes an essay delving into photographer Laurence Salzmann’s photographic essays on humans and their relationship to animals – shepherds and sheep; dogs and their owners – select photographs from which are currently on display in “Creatures Real and Imagined” at Art on the Avenue, through April 30, 2022. The exhibit also features prints by famed artist and friend of Salzmann, Holley Coulter Chirot.

Photo by Laurence Salzmann, included in “Creatures Real and Imagined” at Art on the Avenue.

Laurence Salzmanthe recent issue of, Real and imaginary creatures, reveals how our lives are intertwined with the non-human animals we live with on intimate terms – as herd animals, coworkers, pets, friends, and creatures we can dream about and cry when they leave. our lives . Salzmann’s work touches on the wide range of human/animal relationships, but to appreciate its originality, it must be seen as part of a dialogue between type and individual, a dialogue that only became more refined recently, because we have sharpened our eyes and our understanding–post Peter Singer-of animals.

The very long tradition of animal representation goes back to the first torchlight drawings on the walls of the darkest caves, drawings which allow to see different types of creatures, but not individuals. Even when humans turned animals into symbols of individual moral virtues (Aesop’s fables, the medieval bestiary), the creatures themselves were types. It is only in paintings from the early 15th century that cats and dogs abandon their allegorical status and begin to appear as credible familiars. Finally, by the mid-19th century, Edwin Landseer and others were painting dogs and horses as subjects in their own right, creatures with names and stories worth remembering.

The photograph, by its very nature, would seem to individualize the creature; but context is everything. Seen as a flock, there is little difference between one sheep and another, and in his photographs of pastoral life, Salzmann depicts the flock as a herd, a collective, a heavy unit that must be managed by a shepherd and a dog. Pastoral life is perhaps the oldest of the stories, but it has generally been portrayed in static terms, despite the fact that shepherds are always on the move leading their flocks from region to region. In Salzmann’s photographs we see real sheep and real shepherds, in motion as they move through landscapes and on roads; and we see the working relationship between shepherd, dog and sheep portrayed with equal respect for man and beast. Salzmann spent a year living with the transhumant shepherds of Romania, illustrating the symbiotic bond of their survival and movement together from the mountainous highlands in summer and to the valleys in winter. With his anthropological training, Salzmann sees the animal as an integral part of human society, not only in pastoral Romania but in other popular cultures that he has photographed throughout his career, from Eastern Europe. East and from Turkey to South America.

The sheepdog is of course an integral part of the shepherd’s existence, and one can easily imagine the dog’s full-time employment in pastoral life as a happy job – running everywhere, master of the flock, esteemed by his masters, well fed. Sheepdogs are not harnessed horses, nor idle cats. In general, dogs do all sorts of useful things, from guarding property to searching wreckage for survivors, from serving the blind to sniffing out illegal drugs. But the life of the sheepdog – maybe I’m romanticizing it – seems almost ideal.

A sheepdog that is not employed is another story, and Salzmann features two such dog stories on his show, each of which is the account of an individual dog. Salzmann isn’t the first to individualize his canine subject matter – think Jack London’s great dog stories – but where London creates an inner subjectivity in his fictional animals, pushing them into heroic careers as substitutes for ourselves , Salzmann allows the dog to be their own dog, imbuing his images with respect for their otherness while focusing on the bond between dog and human. In one of his illustrated stories, Garip (1995-2008) looks back on the life he left behind, Salzmann praises a sheepdog brought to America by the photographer’s wife, Ayse, from an archaeological site in Gordion, Turkey. Garip’s new life as a Philadelphian in the Salzmann family was happy, from the photographer’s point of view, but Salzmann’s acute awareness of Garip’s uprooting is the creative source for the photographic series that imagines him, as in a dream , returning to his country of origin. and his lost life as a sheep herder. In dramatically overlapping palimpsestic images, Salzmann, in collaboration with his collaborator James Rowland, transforms his photographs into a mournful, spooky montage, a moving memorial to the photographer’s reverence for the otherness of the dog.

Digital collage of images of a dog running in the snow, someone pointing at dog tracks in the snow, a
Laurence Salzmann, from the series ‘Several Weeks of Searching for a Lost Dog in Winter’ – included in ‘Creatures Real and Imagined’ at Art on the Avenue.

The other dog story, Several weeks of searching for a lost dog in winter, is based on a story written by the photographer’s daughter, Han Salzmann, with photographs by Salzmann. The generic title – in search of a “lost dog” – ironically belies the intensity of the story and the individuality of the sheepdog, Kara, who escapes from Salzmann as they go for a walk. The narrative is a collage of messages and reports detailing the anguish and anxiety of the months-long search, marked by numerous false leads, while the photographs record the persistence of Salzmann and his wife (usually at 6 a.m. morning on cold winter mornings) combing through neighborhoods in West Philadelphia, vacant lots, rail yards, anywhere the dog might have been briefly spotted. The Salzmanns search for a lost child, but in this case the child is able to survive for two years on her own, until she accidentally befriends a stranger whose kindness ends up killing her. return to the Salzmanns.

Garip and Kara are individual dogs, but the thing is, Salzmann resists the almost irresistible urge to anthropomorphize them. It allows them to preserve their otherness. This is worth pointing out, given that many Americans live in a funniest home video culture, in which dressing up a dog or cat on Halloween is considered high-level entertainment. Such anthropomorphic humor dates back at least to comic images from the late 19th century showing dogs sitting around a table in bowler hats, playing poker and smoking cigars, a disservice to humans and dogs alike. Same James Balog, in his impressive series of portraits of monkeys, poses his subjects – alone or in conjunction with female models – in such a way that they appear eerily “human”, thus blurring the line between ape and man as if to pose the question: how different “we are”. ” of them”? The logic here is that if we can see ourselves in them, why don’t we treat them with respect? Yet behind this argument lies the assumption that we can only respect and protect what looks like us, not what doesn’t. Salzmann’s homages to Garip and Kara allow dogs their otherness while emphasizing our human respect for them.

Digital collage of two white dogs lying on their side, semi-transparent so both heads are visible close to others' hearts, covered in natural textures like leaves, pavement, etc.
Laurence Salzmann, from the series ‘Garip (1995-2008) Returns to the Life He Left Behind’, included in ‘Creatures Real and Imagined’ at Art on the Avenue.

While the photographer’s tributes to these two individuals – Garip and Kara – demonstrate the power of art to enshrine the animal-human bond, the “imagined” animals in the title of the exhibition speak to another dimension of life. imaginary, the power to create fantasies that stretch our minds beyond reality. Salzmann’s friend, the famous artist Holley CoulterChirot (1942-84), is the show’s inspiration for this fashion, and she is represented here by six dark and playful etchings that evoke the medieval bestiary in the dreamlike spirit of Bosch and Dali. Salzmann adds his own homage to Chirot in five photo-fantasies inspired by his work that draw the viewer into the fierce symmetries of their bizarre forms and creatures.

With a range of photographic expressions – from anthropological to poetic, from documentary to surrealism –Real and imaginary creatures expands the range of wildlife photography beyond the sentimental, again demonstrating Salzmann’s unique ingenious genius as a photographer.

Real and imaginary creaturescloses April 30, 2022. Art on the Avenue, 3808 Lancaster Ave


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