The diminutive woman with the large portfolio was quietly enthusiastic. She came to the meeting on the recommendation of Kimberly Ayl of Icon International photography agency. I’m not sure now which I liked most at first, Marjorie Salvaterra or her work, but both turned out to be acquaintances that were extremely worthwhile to make.
When she laid the set of luscious black and white fiber prints one by one on the table, I realize I’d begun to forget how beautiful fiber could be. There’s some kind of glow it carries when the blacks are deeply rich and the grain creates something akin to a halo in the grays. The subjects were portraits in a series she calls “Hallelujah”, after the Leonard Cohen song. They were sad and beautiful and craggy with wrinkles and mileage and poetic with youth. Some were well-known; most were not. Twenty five or so faces, all with something to love about them.
When I asked her where or how she got her start, she said she’d only been shooting seriously for about seven or so years and had initially been an actor. The theatrical background made sense as the work reflects a strong emotional depth rarely seen outside of documentary work. Coupling that with her infectious enthusiasm for photography, it soon became clear that Salvaterra was on a path to learn and progress, rapidly evolving her bodies of work.
Could you explain your transition from acting to photography?
I loved photography in high school. Back then it was all film and darkroom work. I actually ran out of classes to take so I became the TA for the other classes. Then I left for college and studied acting. I brought my Pentax to New York but did very little shooting. At first I was probably too drunk, then I just got busy acting.
When I came to LA and was cast in the Herb Ritts film (“The Faculty Lounge”), I’m not sure if I was more excited to be working or working with Herb. We rehearsed at his studio and when I was waiting I would sit and look through his photos. He had tons of photos in boxes, photos in piles and photos lying around on tables. I couldn’t stop looking and gushing. The black and whites totally appealed to everything I love about photography. It was film and contrasty and grainy. The photos were soooo rich! And yet, it still didn’t hit me that this was something I could do.
It wasn’t till I married my husband and we spent three months in Morocco on a film he was a producer on. I was scared to go to Morocco. It was a year after 9/11 and I had no idea what I would do all day while he was on set. We had gotten a little digital point and shoot camera – one megabyte! – as a wedding present.
We had a very sweet driver who would drive me all over the country every day and I fell in love with shooting the people. I got wonderful shots — one particular one of a little girl about ten years old, though her face looks about forty and her eyes, one hundred. She is in the desert, filthy and wearing a shirt that says, “I am what I am”.
I showed the photographer on the set my photos every day. Richard Cartwright was a well-known celebrity photographer and was wildly encouraging to me. He even let me come to the set and shoot with his giant cameras. He told my husband about Julia Dean and her amazing photo workshops. He said that I should get into class with her when we get back to LA.
It turned out the studio was five minutes from our house and I’ve been studying with her ever since. I continue to take class because I feel like it forces me to push my work to new levels and to try things I wouldn’t think of.
What path led you to begin the portraiture series?
I was in Julia’s black and white class. I think I decided to shoot portraits. I shot the first shot of Leah, who was our realtor after an open house on a rainy crappy day. I begged her for one shot before she left. And that was the start of that series.
When most girls were reading Judy Blume, I was reading the DSM. It lists all the psychological disorders and their symptoms. Diagnosis is made on the number of symptoms. And yet, it is easy to go through the list of symptoms for the various disorders and think, ‘that could be me.’ Are we all a little crazy — at least at certain moments in our lives? Is it nurture vs. nature? Some believe people are either born sane or insane. Others believe we are all born perfect and it’s the things that happen in our lives that damage us. I tend to believe the latter. In each portrait, I am looking for that line in each person: the part of ourselves that we tend to hide, the part that scares us, the part that is usually saved for the people closest to us – the ones that know our secrets.
In this new series there’s a moody quality that connects to the earlier portraiture, yet it’s quite a departure from that work. More abstract, more dimensional, more alien, yet very much connected to the raw emotional quality of the portraits. Can you speak about your thought-process leading to the new work?
I remember seeing Giacometti’s Walking Man sculpture when I was young. It reminded me of the stories I heard about the Holocaust. My brother-in-law’s parents and grandparents were in concentration camps, as well as other family friends. I remember when I heard their stories about being in the camps.
I had images of these long, thin, frail figures that had to crawl into their tiny coffin like spaces to sleep. I always thought back to the Giacometti sculptures.
However, when I looked back as an adult at pictures of the sculptures, they weren’t nearly as pained or frail as I had remembered as a child.
In this series, I’ve tried to capture images of the figures that I have always pictured in my head. My work up until now has focused on close-up portraits — trying to capture an emotional life in each person, mostly through their eyes. With this series, I am trying to expose the same emotional life without focusing in on any one feature – but more on each being as a whole.
While the portraits are fairly traditional in terms of technique, the vertical full body series are all pretty unique. They don’t quite look familiar and that’s a pretty exciting thing to achieve. I know your process here was a fairly difficult one to achieve, so I won’t ask you to divulge any trade secrets, but can you speak simply to the format, stock and such?
All the portraits are 35. The Falling Man, etc series is a mix of 35 and 120. Some were taken with a regular camera and some images with a toy camera. They are created mostly in camera, but not all. I actually like the 35 mm ones best. I like the grain on those… which all comes from the Tri-X film.