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Weekly Update – New Books in West Philly!


This week’s Weekly has my review of two new books coming out of West Philadelphia, one by Blaise Tobia and the other by Laurence Salzmann. Below is the copy with some pictures. More photos at flickr.

Pump out the Volume
Two local photographers self-publish their bilingual artist books.

Blaise Tobia
Blaise Tobia, photograph from his new book, The Castle of Eufemio.

Book publishing’s gone through the roof in Philadelphia with easy digital layout tools and online self-publishing giving rise to a mini-tsunami of softcover catalogs and artist’s books.

Now two West Philly artists—Laurence Salzmann and Blaise Tobia—have self-published two beautiful hardcover photo-essay volumes that are both coffee-table-worthy and serious anthropological studies to boot.

Blaise Tobia
Blaise Tobia, photo from Castle of Eufemio.

Salzmann and Tobia—photographers, friends and associates at Photo West co-operative gallery—created their books separately and published them under separate self-created imprints.

Blaise Tobia’s Castle of Eufemio documents a centuries-old religious and civic festival in Calatafimi, Sicily. Color photographs of costumed townspeople, farm animals and floats look like snapshots from a Godfather outtake.

Tobia’s ancestors came from tiny Calatafimi (population 5,000), and the pictures capture the essence of the three-day festival with an insider’s love for the people combined with an outsider’s fascination with a ritual that’s completely out of step with the 21st century.

Blaise Tobia
Another side of Tobia’s art, this photo is from the “Plain/Fancy” series.

Tobia wrote both texts (the Italian runs side-by-side with the English), and his essay is a sober counterpoint to the glorious pictures, pointing out the town’s many shortcomings. There’s just one modest hotel and few restaurants, little prosperity and a continuing emigration of the young. (The upside of this economic depression is there’s little mafia presence.)

Tobia, who teaches digital media at Drexel University, usually makes fine art photographs completely unlike those found in his book. (His formal studies of urban architecture and objects never feature people). He’ll be speaking about the book at the Philadelphia Photographic Society next week, and his photos (not from this series) are included in “Digital: Space: Object” at the Painted Bride through Jan. 12.

Laurence Salzmann
Laurence Salzmann, photo from his new book La Lucha/The Struggle. The photo-anthropologist works with a Hasselblad camera, he told me.

Laurence Salzmann—a photographer, Pew fellow and organizer of Philadelphia’s Festival Cubano—looks at Cuban wrestling culture in his book La Lucha/The Struggle. Salzmann’s black-and-white photos, taken in a gym in Santiago de Cuba, depict the moves and exercises of the students who work largely barefoot in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse.
Laurence Salzmann
Salzmann took the photographs in Santiago de Cuba.

Salzmann invited Cuban painter Luis El Estudiante to participate in the project, and the painter’s grisaille or monochromatic paintings paintings, based on Salzmann’s photos, are imbued with charm and comic grace, and are a surprising yet perfect companion to the lyrical photographs. El Estudiante’s works are carried by Indigo Arts on 3rd Street.

Luis El Estudiante
Painting by Luis El Estudiante from the book La Lucha/The Struggle. The Cuban painter was invited by Salzmann to participate in the book project. Some of the paintings are based on Salzmann’s photos.

The book’s preface (in English and Spanish) by Cuban poet António José Ponte portrays wrestling as a state-sponsored activity in which Cuban wins in international competitions are viewed as victories for socialism over Western decadence.

Blaise Tobia speaks about the book at the Philadelphia Photographic Society
Tues., Nov. 20, 7pm. Free. The Plastic Club, 247 S. Camac St. 215.546.8177.

Castle of Eufemio. Achilles Press in association with the America-Italy Society of Philadelphia. ISBN-13:978-0-9796069-0-8; ISBN-10: 0-9796069-0-X. deluxe casebound hardcover 9X11 inches, 96 pages, 39 full-page color images. Available at Silicon Gallery, the Drexel University Bookstore, and from Achilles Press.

La Lucha The Struggle, book and DVD, $24.95 plus shipping. ISBN 9780960392452. is available at Robin’s Book Store and also at Fox Book Store.
Can also be bought online from in and