I was reached by the news yesterday that Joseph Saltzer of SaltHill Photographic Products died back in 2008, of complications resulting from triple bypass surgery.
I wish I could write a proper obituary of Joe, whose death appears to have gone unmarked in the online world. I can't, I'm afraid. I reviewed a number of his innovative and deluxe high-end darkroom products for Camera & Darkroom magazine over a number of years, talked to him on the phone many times, and finally met him in person when I visited his beautiful contemporary/modern style house at the end of Wildcat Road in Chappaqua, New York, an hour outside New York City. In the words of Andy Grundberg, "SaltHill [was] what you might call a small manufacturing and marketing firm," which Joe ran from the lower floor of his home, where he also had a laboratory-quality, state-of-the-art research darkroom.
His chief designer was a genius from Eastern Europe who spoke little English. Together they conceived, designed, built and marketed products which were certainly overbuilt for their purposes, and which had the same relationship to more commonplace darkroom products that Leica has in the world of cameras today.
Joe was the one who recommended me to S. Tinsley Preston III for the job of chief editor of Darkroom Techniques magazine in 1994, a challenging, sometimes maddening job that was, overall, an experience that I would not have missed. For six years it was a wonderful lookout post from which to watch the changes then happening in photography, affording great views back at the past and toward what lay ahead.
Alas, fate had it in for Joe. His business faltered around various disasters and betrayals connected to his quixotic fiber-optic enlarger. I could tell the whole story, but the story is not mine to tell. The enlarger, which did eventually briefly come to market, had a superlight head made possible by its radical light source—a "cloth" consisting of a weave of fiberoptic strands, some emitting green light and some blue, the two colors of light to which variable contrast papers are sensitive. Joe's misfortunes multiplied upon themselves, and he lost his designer, his business, his fortune, his house...and his wife, who left him as his business crumbled. Joe and Tinsley Preston had a falling out over unpaid advertising bills, and Joe ended up working in the darkroom department at B&H Photo for a time, a relationship which unfortunately also did not end very well as far as I know. He moved house more than once, having come down considerably in the world, and I lost track of him during that time.
I knew Joe, and will remember him, as a bright light. He had vision, and talent, and taste. If he didn't leave a large mark on photography it's because he was in the wrong business at the wrong time, and paid too dearly for the boldness of his vision. His is one of the more tragic tales of the Transition Era. 1979 was the peak of the darkroom hobby in the U.S., and if Joe had started his business 15 or 20 years earlier, he would probably have been much better known and far more widely admired.
At the very least, his passing would have been more noticed by the world at large. I hope some photography museum somewhere (Eastman House, perhaps) will collect an example of each of his products so they don't disappear from history altogether. A belated goodbye, Joe.
(Thanks to Adrian F.)
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