The Seeker

 Salvatore Mancini’s quest for elemental connections
By GREG COOK  |  June 24, 2010

Salvatore Mancini has photographed factories along the Blackstone River Valley to record a local history of the Industrial Revolution. He has photographed religious festivals of people in Italy and Italian immigrants in Cranston, impromptu sidewalk shrines to gang murder victims, the deinstitutionalization of patients of Rhode Island mental health in-stitutions, and — perhaps his most extended project — ancient 

MAGNIFICENT Granite Dells.
Native American petroglyphs across the United States.

A new exhibit of the 63-year-old Cranston resident’s photos at Gallery Z (259 Atwells Avenue, Providence, through July 3) reminds why he is one of the region’s most esteemed photog-raphers. Mancini’s central subject, for 35 years now, has been sacred sites and religious festivals around the world. What sets him apart, and has earned him shows at the Smithsonian, RISD Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is how he weds sterling black-and-white technique to a quest for the elemental.

Mancini brilliantly uses tones of light and shadow to create drama. Swimming Towards the Buddhist Shrine (2006) shows a school of fish swimming up a shallow rocky stream toward a Buddha statue at the foot of a great gnarled tree festooned with banners. It would be easy for the fish to get lost in all this detail, but Mancini makes them a main event by con-trasting the pale fish with the dark riverbed. And so it appears as if the shrine is magnetic to all creation.

His deft command of tone doesn’t translate into his color photos here — which are more even in tone and hue, and correspondingly less dramatic. And he loses some of it in his petroglyph photos — in this instance shot in Arizona — probably because those compositions are dictated by a need to foreground and illuminate the ancient stone carvings. They’re more interesting as records of these mysterious carvings than as Mancini’s own art.

The most dramatic image of this set is Petroglyphs with Night Sky, Arizona (2010), a night shot of two spotlit boulders completely tattooed with antic stick figures, deer, targets, and zigzags. The sky was recorded with a long exposure so the stars blur into curving lines, pointing to the spinning of the earth, the stillness of the stones, and the great span of cos-mic time. But the long exposure feels a bit like a gimmick, to obviously nudge us toward big thoughts. Elsewhere he reproduces details of petroglyphs in gold on black. It seems an attempt to conjure some of the originals’ magic, but it can feel forced.

Mancini’s great talent comes through here in striking shots of granite dells in Arizona. A single cloud hovers above a magnificent, furrowed butte like a sort of halo. Photos show slender oval rocks standing upright, precariously, magically balanced on end. Elsewhere, round boulders lay scattered across a cracked stone table. In another image, a great rough dark gray boulder, shaped a bit like a tongue, sits on a rocky slope, framed by a dark valley and light clouds.

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