Sary Zananiri | After Salzmann (in the Suprematist manner): Tombeau de Saint Jacques #3 (2022) | Manipulated archival photograph | Edition of 15 + AP | 30 x 30 cm
Photographic theorists have pointed out that the history of photography in Palestine is strongly entwined with colonialism with photographers selectively highlighting the ancient biblical past at the expense of modern Palestinian life. Auguste Salzmann was one such photographer who – influenced by theories of amateur archaeologist Louis Félicien Caignart de Saulcy – attempted to prove through photography that the physical remains of Jerusalem dated from the period of Solomon (c. 970-931 BCE), rather than the Roman period (1st century CE). Salzmann helped fund his scholarly research through the sale of lavish photo books for the armchair tourists of the West, creating an ideological confluence of photography, archaeology and religious tourism.
The Palestinian modernity that enabled such biblified photos – from the formalisation of academic disciplines to the advent of photo-reproductive technologies to the communication and transport infrastructure that facilitated tourism – was paradoxically undermined by the global projection of ancient biblical land that eclipsed the imaging of modern Palestine.
Biblical narrative had its own antecedents in Palestinian visual culture. Nicola Saig, arguably the first Palestinian modernist painter, first trained as iconographer. The late Kamal Boullata and, more recently, Nisa Ari have both looked in detail at the ways in which photographic practices impacted Saig’s paintings, who often worked with imagery from photographs, particularly the American Colony Photo Department.
Many of these Palestinian iconographers, hailing from Orthodox backgrounds, had deep links with Russia and Russian populations living in late Ottoman Palestine. Memoirs discuss Russian pilgrims as being a lucrative market for Arab Orthodox cultural producers until the First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917.
A comparative example of the influence of iconography on regionalised modern aesthetics is the Russian Kazimir Malevich, whose work Black Square was exhibited at the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 in 1915. The installation of Black Square high in the corner of the room referenced the placement of icons in the Russian home, but also attempted to transform religious traditions into political ones, not unlike Saig shift to dealing with nationalist narratives. In thinking about the impacts of iconography on modern visual culture, it seems that only Russian iterations would become part of the Modernist canon.
The After Salzmann (in the Suprematist manner) series takes details from Auguste Salzmann’s 1854 photos of what is sometimes called the Valley of Josaphat. The tombs in question, previously mis-dated to a thousand years earlier are rotated and distorted, erasing most of the landscape details surrounding the dark voids that populate the image. The process transforms Biblical narrative into a different vision of modernity, laying bear Salzmann’s ideological imperative.
This reductive reprocessing of images links the original photographs to Malevich’s Suprematist aesthetics while also erasing politicised biblical narrative. In doing so, the Palestinian landscape is also erased, re-enacting what has been so prevalent in visual culture over the last 180 years since the birth of photography.