Fall 2009 | Volume XXII, Number 3
Altered Reality: Samantha Salzinger’s Bold New World
by Samantha Rojas

Crisp white snow lies across a tree-laden landscape in Canada, reddish orange buttes are shadowed by sunset in Monument Park, majestic mountains and pine trees touch the sky in Banff: all are captured in photographs that must certainly have been taken on a worldwide tour by none other than Samantha Salzinger.

But this red-headed spitfire has something up her sleeve. A closer look at these masterpieces reveals something slightly askew, too perfect, too serene and, in some cases, too unbelievable. That’s because they are faux, fabricated worlds created at the hands of a madcap creator, secretly concocting worlds on the fourth floor of her Davie apartment.

Light streams through the open balcony. There are no blinds or curtains to distort or distract it. This is the vibrant key element in many of her works. With the windows open to the world, one would never know that, here, a mystery is afoot.

Yes, Salzinger is a photographer, but the world she photographs is all created by her. For her nimble hands, simple objects such as cotton, Styrofoam, moss and dirt transform into global and interstellar landscapes just begging to be explored. Once created, the melding of real and imaginary objects is photographed, bonding into being. “I like to look at the shapes of things and see how I can make a new one and make it look organic. It is like sculpture and painting, but it is photography. For me, the most important element is the angle and lighting.”

With a sly smile, the artist, with pinned-up curly tresses, pulls a bit nervously at her turquoise summer dress as she reveals the mystery behind her masterpieces. In her natural surroundings, her frenetic energy and subtly playful and curious demeanor don’t show her 39 years, but rather a youthful and passionate creator that could easily be mistaken for a fresh-faced college student, eager to take life on full-force. Hemming in all this expansion must be an everyday challenge. It is this contrast between power and quiet professionalism that makes her such a fireball, a force to be reckoned with.

Her mesmerizing images have caught the attention of the South Florida Cultural Consortium, which has granted her - for the second time - its top award of $15,000. “I don’t know where else, in what other state, artists get $15,000 to contribute to their work,” says a very appreciative Salzinger. She plans on using the funds for printing, film, framing, building sets, a high-end digital camera and similar needs, which are all very expensive. For example, there is only one local lab that does the special developing required by her 4” x 5”-format camera.

Her earlier works, she acknowledges, were very serious, violent even - showing women “objectifying” themselves in the name of beauty, faces being stripped off, stitched up. They seem to indicate the truth beneath the knife, the obsession with perfection, the need for humans to be God-like.

Now, instead of women altering their bodies, she looks at humans altering worlds. Her collection of landscapes indicates man’s involvement. In some cases, it is within the picture itself, like cut down trees in the natural environment; in others, it is simply by the method of formulating the image in the first place.

As she says in her artist’s statement:

These photographs explore themes of reality and fiction utilizing the mechanism of the diorama, creating hand-built miniatures of the landscape and catastrophic events of nature. The photographs begin with a 4” x 5” traditional view camera, creating transparencies that are then digitally scanned and manipulated. Through this process I am interested in investigating the human desire to control and predict nature. As the images romanticize nature as untouched and uncontrollable, the irony is that what you see is entirely synthetic and created by human hands. Some of her new images deal with meteors, imaginary planets and interstellar phenomenon. She creates one world from Styrofoam, grout and baking soda, another with resin swirled to look like dark waters with a moon sitting in the background. “I read a lot of sci-fi and like I Star Trek. I thought if I can create landscapes around the globe, why not in other worlds where I can be really creative? I also wonder what Earth will look like 100,000 years from now. That is something else I may explore,” she says.

This artist is inspired by most things around her, but has always loved kitsch, such as Disneyland – the idea of creating a new fantasy world. She is excited about her upcoming trip to another kitschy locale – Vegas. “It is sure to inspire me,” she notes. She also has always been interested in Greece and Greek mythology. “I'm interested in the aesthetics of ancient Greece and what determined beauty.”

Salzinger, who completed her visual arts undergraduate degree at Florida Atlantic University and obtained her MFA from Yale University in photography, normally teaches photography at Palm Beach Community College, perhaps her biggest inspiration. “I love teaching. I love the students, how they all get the same assignment but each brings something different back. I teach what I love.”

But at this moment, she is on summer break, offering more opportunity to concentrate on work. “I’m not a good multi-tasker,” she admits. “I like waking up and just thinking about this.”

She keeps her environment open, clean, with geometric lines, an overall feeling of whiteness like a blank canvas just waiting to be filled. In this nothingness, comes the creation. “I can’t work in clutter,” she declares.

Among the crisp coolness is an oversized burgundy couch and a see-through square coffee table just brimming with art books lined up on the inside – but even that seemingly overflowing presence is contained, controlled. “I like being in control,” she admits.

She will take over her kitchen table with a diorama, preparing it, perhaps for three weeks at a time, before it is ready even for test shots. “I have to build it where it should be,” she says. “I think a lot about scale. I built this Stonehenge-like structure but realized it was too big after the test shots and had to dismantle it and start over.” But when the pressure is on, this go-getter will do what she has to in order to meet the deadline.

Salzinger has considered herself an artist since kindergarten. “I grew up in New Jersey. We used to always go to art museums. My mother is into opera. My brother is a writer. So it wasn’t unnatural for me to be an artist,” she explains. “But my family was concerned about me getting a job. It never occurred to me. I have always had money coming in from art. Things have always just opened up for me.”

Her next step is to add some animation. She once made a diorama that had an actual forest fire she videoed. “I would love to do something like that again or to add subtle motion, like wind or the waterfall moving,” referring to her “Eden” picture – which features a large tree, rainbow, flowers and waterfall. It is almost too much like fantasy for her. “It is one of my least favorites,” she says.

“I love recreating myself all the time. With an artist, like a conspiracy, you never know what is real and what is not…”

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