Auguste Salzmann used his camera to dissect the centuries layered in Jerusalem’s architecture. But the 19th-century French photographer wasn’t looking for aesthetic influences or contemporary life, he was searching for visible evidence of biblical history. What he found instead was the subjectivity of photography, at a time when the medium was still considered a tool of truth.
“This is book of ‘good faith’; my photographs confer it upon me,” Salzmann said of his 1856 album Jerusalem: A Study and Photographic Reproduction of the Monuments of the Holy City. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has selected 40 of the 174 salted paper prints in the album for display in Faith and Photography: Auguste Salzmann in the Holy Land. The museum states that this is the first exhibition dedicated to his work, even though he was a pioneer of photography.
Later in his life, Salzmann would travel to Algeria, Egypt, and Greece with camera in tow, but Faith and Photography focuses exclusively on his Jerusalem images. All were taken in 1854 after a long journey from his home in Paris. Salzmann spent months methodically researching and documenting 68 sites in Jerusalem. He had been a painting student in the Paris Salons before turning to biblical antiquities in the early 1850s. So it was with a fresh perspective of both Romanticism and religion that he approached the centuries of history in the built environment of the holy city.
The installation in the Met’s galleries is sober, just the photographs in simple frames, but the arrangement is intended to reflect Salzmann’s own narrative within the 1856 album. First, he would take a sprawling panorama, then steadily march towards the central site, until finally he focused in close on the gaping void of the Tomb of the Judges or a shadowy inscription on Jaffa Gate. Although many of the locations were popular pilgrimage sites even then, no signs of life are apparent, partly due to the long exposure time (during which he sketched) and also his editorial choice. For instance, the doors of the Church of the Sepulchre are shut, as he stopped by in the early morning before the tourist crowds. The Valley of Jehoshaphat is empty of living people, but haunted by the dead buried beneath its rocky earth, awaiting their rise in the Last Judgment.
Salzmann stated that he adhered to “biblical text from which I have not erred, and that I have always taken as a base and starting point for my observations.” These photographs, then, were made as a sort of scientific spiritualism — what do they convey to us now as art objects? Currently, the Met is also showing the much larger Jerusalem 1000 to 1400: Every People Under Heaven. That exhibition delves into centuries of history through rare objects; Salzmann represents an outsider’s 19th-century attempt to find that same past through its visible details. With their heavy tones, the prints are beautiful, but they’re also a visual exhumation of time, using photography as the excavator.
Faith and Photography: Auguste Salzmann in the Holy Land continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 5, 2017 .