Photography / Features

A Studio Visit with Stephen Salmieri

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The photographs of Stephen Salmieri embody the power retained by analogue photography in the digital era. Salmieri has been shooting black-and-white film since the 1960s when he began documenting the streets and inhabitants of New York. His portraiture is as honest as it is diverse, celebrating the characters in his neighborhood and humanizing celebrities shot on assignment.

Above photograph: Coney Island, 1969; Courtesy of the Artist

After a decade of travel and collaboration with his wife and fellow artist, Sydnie Michele, he completed Cadillac: An American Icon (Rizzoli 1985, Taschen 1988), a comprehensive survey of the manufacturer’s cars found across the United States. Salmieri’s work is held in numerous museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum, and Getty Museum. I visited Salmieri in his Lower East Side studio to talk about his work—and receive an impromptu portrait.

Soho, New York, 1999; Courtesy of the Artist

B&H: How did you get started with photography?

Stephen Salmieri: I came from a classic Italian artist family. My grandfather came to America in the Thirties; he was an architect who worked on wrought-iron façades. After high school, I went to School of Visual Arts and thought I was going to be an illustrator. When I first picked up a camera, I was making photographs to make art from—but my teachers kept saying: “You’re a better photographer than illustrator!” So, that is how it began.

Your first major photo project focused on Coney Island.

I had grown up near Coney Island. I took the Bath Avenue bus with my Nikon F camera and made my first photographs. I kept with that for a little over five years. I would go there every few weeks. I used to travel with my Nikon 35mm, Rollei, 4 x 5, a tripod, and plates. Finally, I bought a Volkswagen bug. Out of hundreds of rolls and sheets of film, that project is now complete at 65 photographs.

Can you describe your workflow once you have completed photographing for a series?

When I complete my projects, I take a month or two off and go in the darkroom. I print three sizes of each image: 8 x 10, 11 x 14, and 16 x 20. I’ve made an archive. I love the process. It is like alchemy, making the negative. I think what is getting lost in the digital age when you see your pictures instantly is the process of seeing your negative in your head when you are shooting.

One thing that struck me when I first encountered your work was that so many of your prints include the entire frame of your negative.

I rarely, rarely, crop. I photograph like a filmmaker. I made a few documentaries in art school and when you are shooting film there’s no cropping. I really move my camera like a filmmaker. I’m a little guy; I’ve got a lot of flexibility; and I’m agile. When I’m shooting, I’m looking around for the perfect frame. And I know when I get it almost every time. There is something valuable about not cropping. It is a discipline that if you don’t have, you get sloppy. A lot of photography is sloppy, shoddy, snapshot-y. I craft my images—the composition, the light—I do a lot of manipulating in the darkroom.

Appalachia, Virginia, 1972; Courtesy of the Artist

Has it been difficult to continue working exclusively with black-and-white film?

Materials are constantly changing. Ilford is the last stand. And they have dropped their silver content tremendously so it’s not as good as it once was. But I always bought large quantities of paper. I still have vintage stock of the Ilford.

And you continue to make new prints from old negatives.

Collectors like to know that the print that they are buying was made at the same time that the negative was made. They want the vintage print. And I have to tell them that sometimes ten years later I’ll go back and make a better print. So, you might be getting a vintage print but you won’t be getting the better print. It’s something I think we need to educate collectors about. That’s how investors think. They think of vintages as the original.

What brought you toward studio photography?

I always saw the studio as an extension of the street and the street as an extension of the studio. I would bring people from the street into my studio. You come home from a day of shooting with someone you photographed earlier that day on the street and you just keep shooting. My favorite pictures came from meeting, relating, and connecting with people—getting some kind of relationship. I would go back to places like Coney Island and show them the contact prints. And then sometimes they would come to the studio.

You have an impressive collection of portraits of artists and celebrities.

A lot of those were assignments. I was working for the New York Times, Esquire Magazine, and Time in the ’70s and ’80s. Back then it was easier to get to the celebrities. They weren’t sought after by a million people. You could pick up the phone and call someone.

I remember my first assignment at the Times. They said, if you can get a picture of Edward Albee you’ve got the job. So, I went back to my studio and looked up his number. I called him and told him I was with the Times—that was my in. He asked how long it would take and I said about fifteen minutes. Then he asked when I wanted to do it. I said, “Say when.” He said “Now.” I took a cab to his apartment, had my camera around my neck, and when the elevator door opened on his floor he was standing in front of me. I took the shot and said “OK!” And that was how I began my celebrity career. The editors at the Times were impressed because Albee hated to be photographed.

Sydnie Michele with antique tobacco pipes, New York, 1974

It is a common complaint that the New York art world was much more approachable twenty or thirty years ago.

In 1968—I was only 22 years old—I picked up a phone and called John Szarkowski (Director of Photography at MoMA, 1962-1991)—and he answered! I told him who I was and that I had some photographs that I’d like to show him and he said, “Sure, come on up!” That’s how innocent it was.

What was Szarkowski like?

He was a load of laughs—a fun guy with many of stories. He made available to me the entire MoMA archive. I would go up there many days and go through their collection, which was a great experience.

You were moving between the upper echelons of the editorial and art worlds.

On the one hand, I have worked my whole life as a freelancer on assignment for corporate advertising, editorials, for private commissions, and sales of prints. On the other hand, I had my own personal projects that I worked on myself. I made a living any way I could as a photographer. And of course, it was generally oriented around black-and-white. I’ve never shot color in my entire life. I managed to survive and get known as a black-and-white photographer. So, I was always oriented around and limited to that.

What led you to begin shooting cars?

I let projects come to me. We tend to think we have to go outside our lives to find something as a subject when it is right in your own life. When I was a kid I was a car nut; I used to build hot rods and wash cars on the weekends to make money. So, I knew I wanted to do something about cars and America’s relationship with cars. I chose Cadillac because it was such an iconic symbol. It was a car that covered from the rich to the poor. I spent about ten years on that project. I must have made a half a dozen or more trips across the country searching for Cadillacs.

Something magical happens when you take a project on. Things start showing up. There is a certain magic about it. We’ve all heard about when you are going to have a baby or buy a car suddenly you see babies and cars everywhere. And so, that starts to happen with a project. In the dozen or so major projects I’ve taken on in my life there was always that magic of it. Of course, once people start to know what you’re doing you get friends that come to you and say, “I know a great guy with a Cadillac you have to go photograph!”

1950 Cadillac, Santa Monica, CA, 1985; Courtesy of the Artist

Many of these prints were painted by your wife.

My wife, Sydnie Michele hand-colored those. They are 16 x 20 black-and-white prints painted with very finely ground oils. She would spend about a month or so on each one, slowly rubbing the paint into the emulsion with cotton and then rubbing it out with clean cotton. AGFA Portriga fiber paper was the best for this. The Ilford matte doesn’t have that same toothy surface. Then I would dry mount them to linen. It seemed like the natural thing to do—to mount them on a canvas. There are 80 total photographs, half of which are painted. It took about ten years.

You’ve collaborated with Sydnie Michele on a series of portraits of yourself, as well.

That was a wonderful opportunity, having a wife who is a great portraitist. It provides me with the benefit of experiencing being a subject for another photographer—and being self-conscious of myself as being a subject. All the great photographers have many pictures of themselves. I always loved when I would discover someone like Edward Steichen or August Sander and see how many self-portraits existed in their archives.

So, there I was in the darkroom—staring at myself. I can’t put into words the benefit it was for me to have that experience so that when I got to photographing someone else I knew what it was like. The portrait process is somewhat embarrassing. You get a person in front of a camera and it’s you, the person, and your camera. You are about to take something from them and you’re asking them to be something for you. You’re making a work out of art for yourself. So being in my own pictures helped me to get around that. And to this day, with almost every subject, I let the person who I am shooting look through my camera to see me through it—especially with the 8x10.

Much of your work is medium or large format. You even modified a 4 x 5 camera to make it easier to use on the street.

I wanted a wide-angle 4 x 5. It was big in the ’60s; that was the age of the fisheye. This is as wide as you can get with a 4 x 5 and cover the corners. I started out with a Crown Graphic press camera and I added a 90mm and 75mm. A 65mm wouldn’t make it on there. I started taking cameras apart and ended up making a handheld wide-angle 4 x 5 camera. It’s a 65mm f/8.

Cory Rice, New York, 2017; Courtesy of the Artist

How has your experience of New York City changed over time as you’ve documented its streets?

Your question has landed on what I’ve been doing for the past few months: editing through 30,000 negatives of New York City. I used to be a fireball of energy—if I had two or three days a week to spare where I wasn’t on an assignment I was out with my camera in the city. I covered this city like an archeologist. I had a map on my wall and I had my plan for the week of where I was going to go. I think I covered every block in the skyline of Manhattan. I got into many apartments, not just on the street. So, I have a twofold study of the city: its street life and its dwellings.

What do you have planned next?

I am currently working on a publication of my fifty years of New York street life and portraits. I also have a museum show in the works.


Cory Rice

Stephen Salmieri

A wider selection of Salmieri’s work can be found on his website. In addition to his own practice, Salmieri offers private, large format photography and printmaking lessons at his studio.

This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews with NYC-based artists focusing on contemporary photographic practices.

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I'm pretty sure I caught at least one Packard grill on your site.  Wonderful shots.  Even for someone who prefers color photography, such superb monochrome shots are very, very special.  And while I understand that 'original' prints of a photo having a higher price to some, if the original photographer revisits a negative and applies more years of learning and experience and creates a new print, I'm pretty sure I'm not saying NO to it.  And when I think of your site, I'll remember iconic images of iconic figures!

Hi R Troy,

There is definitely something to be said for a well-made black and white print these days. Hard to do them justice via digital scans. Thanks for reading!

Absolutely love the Cadillac - my grandfather had one almost like your 1950 black model. My grandfather had a 2 - tone green. Light green body with dark green roof. He used to let me drive it up and down his driveway when I was just a little punk! 

If your ever would make reproduction prints of the Cadillac, I would be most interested. 

Really wonderful work you have created. 

Best regards,

paul Hill

Hi Paul,

Thanks for reading! You may want to contact Stephen directly about the repro print. His contact info is on his website:  http://www.salmieriphotographs.com/contact-p_5.html

Wonderful 

Thanks for reading, Safarasthirdeye!

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