In Profile

Lisa Saltzman

BY Lyle Rexer, March 1, 2024

When Lisa Saltzman sets her mind to something, chances are it will get done. Saltzman wanted to have an impact on the world of art and culture, and after her parents passed away (her father in 2020, her mother in 2022), she established a family foundation in their name to do that. Its most recent and important contribution is the Saltzman Prize, an award for emerging photographer of the year, in collaboration with the Center for Photography at Woodstock (CPW)/PhotoFairs NY.  It follows the Ralph Saltzman Prize she established at the Design Museum in London in 2021 and the Ralph Saltzman Student Prize Contest at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. The photography award, however, has a special significance.

Lisa Saltzman, Untitled from City Anonymity, 2019. Courtesy the artist

In the first place, Saltzman herself is a photographer, and photography has been part of her life since she was young. “I think when I was about nine, my father bought me a camera – a Konica – and a tripod. It was as tall as I was,” she says. This was hardly a casual gift: Ralph Saltzman must have had an inkling. Saltzman took the camera to school and ended up making pictures of all of her classmates and giving them the prints. Friends and relatives would routinely say: “Get Lisa to take the pictures.” 

She did, but it was her sister Jodi who became a photo editor and photographer. Meanwhile, Saltzman built and ran a successful advertising and promotion company, supporting such institutions and companies as the Guggenheim, Estée Lauder, and HBO. It wasn’t until 2016, when she embarked on a photographic series she titled City Anonymity – a conceptual take on street photography – that she made a commitment to the creative side of photography. Since then, her images have been featured in such publications as LensCulture and L’oeil de la photographie. “As someone who has experienced the challenges of attempting to accomplish something creatively,” she says, “I wanted the prize to help other artists move forward.”

Lisa Saltzman, interior of the Saltzman living room, 2023

Considering the world in which Saltzman was raised, it is hardly surprising that her life should have taken a creative path. The only surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner. Saltzman grew up in New York City surrounded by art. Her father founded the successful fabric design business Designtex. He and his wife, Muriel, were also avid art collectors, with wide-ranging interests. Their apartment in New York and their residence in Florida were eclectic museums, and as Lisa Saltzman puts it, “I took all this in by osmosis.” Their individualistic approach to collecting implicitly endorsed an attitude toward artmaking that has more to do with personal desire and imagination than it does with prevailing ideas of what is fashionable. In the many African sculptural pieces collected by her parents, for example, it is possible to detect an influence on Saltzman’s approach to abstracting and otherwise dislocating the human form. “My parents were independent collectors. They judged everything by whether they liked it, whether it spoke to them,” she says, adding, “For them, that was the only reason to acquire any piece of art.”

Saltzman also inherited an attitude toward giving back. Her parents were philanthropists who served on a variety of boards and made significant donations to the arts. Most notably, they played an important role at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, FL. “As the head of a design company,” says Saltzman, “my father was always trying to nurture talent. When he passed away, I felt I must do something positive for the arts.” CPW was, for her, a logical and exciting choice. The Center had recently moved from its longtime location in Woodstock, NY, to a more ample space in Kingston, a dozen miles away. A former cigar factory, the renovated historic building provides expanded space for exhibitions, community programs, and workshops. It follows the lead of institutions like DIA Beacon and Mass MoCA in revitalizing industrial urban neighborhoods. “The Center was in a moment of transition,” Saltzman says, “and that interested me. I felt I could help them get to the next level of importance and impact.” 

Lisa Saltzman, Untitled from Obscure Objects of Desire, 2023. Courtesy the artist

When she surveyed the landscape of organizations devoted exclusively to photography, she found that it was, in fact, sparsely populated, even in New York City. “There are the major museums, of course, but my contribution and energy would not be as meaningful there,” she says. She also joined CPW’s board of directors last year. CPW Executive Director Brian Wallis issued a statement in praise of the award: “We share a strong commitment to providing direct support to artists at all stages of their work, and we are deeply grateful to Lisa for her vision and leadership in establishing this opportunity.” Saltzman adds: “CPW feels very grass roots, very connected to the photo community, and that has a lot of appeal. I like to be there at the beginning of things and help start them up.”

A group of nominators solicited from the art and photography world (full disclosure, I was one of them) submits a list of candidates at the early stages of their careers – they need not be young – and from that list, the judges select the award winner. This year’s judges include photographers Deborah Willis and Susan Meiselas and Asia Society Director Yasufumi Nakamori. In addition to the prize, which will be announced March 11, and a $10,000 award, CPW will mount an exhibition of the award-winning work. “I wanted Brian and CPW to put together the strongest list of nominators and judges possible, to make sure we have an award that is both prestigious and expansive in its vision of photography,” she says. “That’s exactly what they have done. All the candidates are really outstanding.”