Providence, R.I. – It was 1970 when photographer Salvatore Mancini and a friend packed up their jeep with cameras, film, and developing equipment and set out on an extended trip across the U.S. Their mission: to visit the sites of the iconic landscape photographs they studied in school.
"So it was the Appalachians, Grand Canyon, New Mexico, Big Sur, Olympic peninsula, and it really was a pilgrimage," Mancini says.
Forty years on, Mancini and his cameras- have traveled to India, Cambodia his native Italy and a host of locations in between. In black and white, he's captured ancient rock drawings, a man washing the feet of a giant Buddha statue, and a boy with a rat perched on his shoulder in India. It's a career that's brought the Cranston-based photographer numerous recognitions, including Italy's prestigious Bolaffi award and a local Pell Award. Mancini's work's been exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, the Fogg Museum in Cambridge and the RISD museum of Art, among others.
An exhibit of Manicni's photographs is currently on display at Gallery Z on Providence's Federal Hill. The work includes prints of his ancient rock photos. Taken in the American southwest, they show primitive representations of animal and human forms dating back as far as 5,000 years ago.
Mancini says he's intrigued by the rock drawing because "an abstract thing made by man actually exists out in nature that's what captivates me like how, what, why?"
Part of what interests Mancini about his subject matter is how people pay homage to one another and places, and the similarities that exist from culture to culture. It's a theme he explored in a project that was inspired by local events.
"That was the killings of these young people who had been shot and murdered here in Rhode island, usually gang related," Mancini says. "There I saw similarities between the religious shrines that you see around the world in which people try to empower an area as a place of worship, devotion and remembrance"
Mancini is known to work alone and develop his own photographic techniques. When he's out on a shoot, he carries a tripod, ladder and his camera, spending several hours to several days at a single location. When he travelled to the Southwest to document the ancient rocks, or petroglyphs, he created a unique process to achieve the visual effect he was looking for.
"Actually tracing out the drawings with a flashlight, a very powerful flashlight with a cone in front of it so I can control the diameter of the light," he says. "And I'm literally out there at night, with a flashlight, with the camera on the tripod, with the aperture open slowly drawing out--- well tracing the drawing."
The effect gives the petroglyphs an other-worldly luminescence. The rocks, with their ancient drawings, are lit in foreground. Stars appear as lines of light in the background, their orbits caught by the extended exposure of the photograph.
Large rocks are a recurring subject matter in Mancini's work. Dr. Joseph Chazan, a collector and patron, says Mancini's ability to draw meaning from the inanimate objects sets his work apart.
"Being able to take a rock and make it into an image that transcends time, to me that's what someone like Sal and people of his genre do," Chazan says. "They see things that we walk by all the time and they look extraordinarily different."
And if the viewer is able to look at a subject matter through a different perspective, then Mancini has achieved his goal. That's true whether the subject be a rock in the Southwest or, as Mancini recalls, an Indian temple dedicated to rodents. Something he photographed two years ago.
"They believe the rats are reincarnations of their dead ancestors and that they can be worshiped and they can be prayed to," Mancini says. "It brings to mind [that as] soon as you decide something is important whether it be a rat, a tree or a rock, and you make it into an important object and you make it into a devotional object" your relation to them changes.
As for what's next in Mancini's career, the photographer says he can't say what project will follow his showing on Federal Hill. But if his piles of unprinted film are any indication, he has a wealth of prior work to potentially revisit.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The work of photographer Salvator Mancini will be on display at Gallery Z on Providence's Federal Hill until Saturday, July 3.