Photobook Review: Laurence Salzmann – La Baie/Bath Scenes
“On Sunday mornings men carrying bunches of oak leaves were to be seen in the streets of the town. They walked in small groups headed in the direction of the Jewish Bath on Strada Baia.
The bath pictures were taken during the time I lived in Radauti, 1975-76, in northeastern Romania. While there, I dedicated myself to photographing what remained of Jewish life. This work developed into an intimate, in-depth photographic essay entitled: The Last Jews of Radauti. The Baths, a vital part of the community life, were owned by the Jewish community and used by both the Jews and the Romanians. I went there mainly to photograph things of Jewish interest – the Mikveh, a traditional religious bath – and the Jewish men and women working there.
I found that the Baths were about the only place where one could really get warm during the long, cold winters. So, I became a frequent visitor to the steam room and the hot showers. They were open Thursday, Friday and Sunday; the morning hours would be reserved for women one day, and for men the next day. At all times, though, one could rent a private room with a tub. Friday was the busiest day, for it was the day of the Market, and it also marked the day before returning to their villages (after selling their goods at the market) would stop for a bath and many members of the Jewish community would complete their Sabbath preparations with a bath.
The bath house was over 100 years old. In a town where few of the houses had running water, the public bath became a frequently visited place. Very little seemed to have changed since it was first built, except that the wooden buckets which were given out to each bather were replaced with plastic ones. The men filled their buckets with cold water as they walked into the steam room (abur). There were rows of wooden benches as in an amphitheater, the highest one was the hottest, naturally. The cold water in the bucket was used to refresh one’s face and cool off a little as the steam began to get unbearable. A shrill bell rang several times calling the bathers from other parts of the bath house to the steam room. Often, the room was so full that people were literally sitting on top of each other. The bath attendant opened the small iron door of the floor-to-ceiling stove. Cups of cold water were thrown over the red hot stones to let off more steam, and the men on the benches perspired more and more. Warm waves of steam floated about. The more hardy souls sitting on the upper benches would shout out, “Heat up the bath!” (incalzeste baia). Then the whole process would start again.
As the room began to cool down, men would beat each other on their backs with clusters of oak leaves which they had brought along with them. The leaves stung the skin, but left a wonderful, refreshing feeling and a sweet smell. In the shower room there were always more people than shower heads. Sometimes a father and son would huddle together under one shower. After soaping up and bathing, the bathers if so inclined, would return for another session in the steam bath. The last station of the bath were the benches in the locker room where the totally relaxed, limp bodies lay down wrapped in coarse, linen towels.
The bathing process was a ritual; one met the same men week after week, joking around, telling stories to each other. It seemed that in the bath the problems of the outside world were all washed away.
As one walked out of the bath house, near the locker room, one couldn’t miss the following warning written in bold type:”Oamenii civilizati nu scuipa pe jos. Deci serviti-va de scuipatoare!” (Civilized people do not spit on the floor; therefore, make use of the spittoon!)” – Laurence Salzmann
I first visited Laurence’s site and his Photo Essay category with great surprise finding some amazing documentary photos from Romania, from the seventies. I ordered the book “La Baie” and started talking with the author, absolutely fascinated by my latest find. As he stated in his emails his Romanian archive is very vast, covering topics like he “The Last Jews of Rădăuţi” and Mioriţa‘s transhumance story.
I received the photobook (alongside another copy and another small photobook that you can find soon in our library). 24 photos in a 22 cm x 29.5 cm format, softcovers and very thin design, almost like a magazine. I wished for a hard-cover as the format of the book is easily damageable.
As the intro depicts the photographer shows us some pubic bath scenes from the ’70s from Romania in a very straight-forward documentary type photography. Very clean and very striking portraits due to their candidness it reveals the life inside this place of peace and relaxation. More interesting details in the photobook’s intro and outro (with some technical details also).
Stay close for more of Laurence’s works soon. You can buy the book and many others on http://www.blueflowerpress.com/.