Acclaimed American photographer Sylvia Salmi lived in Ajijic in the 1960s and 1970s
Sylvia Ester Salmi (1909-1977) was a prominent and highly respected American photographer. During the 1930s and 1940s, she took portraits of numerous great artists and intellectuals of the time, including Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and, in Mexico, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco and Leon Trotsky. In 1964, following the death of her second husband, Salmi embarked on an eight-year tour of the world before settling in Ajijic in about 1972.
Salmi was born on 5 November 1909 in Quincy, Norfolk, Massachusetts. She graduated from Washington Irving High School in New York in 1928 and shortly afterwards (3 April 1930) married Victor M. Kroetch. The couple made their home in New York City and had a daughter, Cassandra Eloise Salmi, in 1933. The marriage broke down, and Salmi and Kroetch were divorced the following year. Salmi then threw herself into her true passion – photography – and quickly gained a reputation as a fine portraitist.
Salmi’s second husband was Herbert Solow (1903-1964), a prominent New York journalist, editor and intellectual.
After his death in 1964, Salmi toured the world prior to settling in Ajijic on Lake Chapala in about 1972. She became known as a notoriously parsimonious woman and one of the village’s real characters. Judy Eager, who with husband Morley ran the (Old) Posada Ajijic for many years, recalls that Salmi held weekly Sunday cocktail parties at which she was rumored to serve a punch comprised of “mixed leftover drinks from a prior party” and served hors d’oeuvres made of food scraps she had taken home from the Posada’s restaurant. Salmi’s parties were, by all accounts, pretty wild affairs, with Eager quoted as saying that, “She [Salmi] was known to take her clothes off after many drinks and loved to wear a cape which allowed her to flash whoever she wishes.”
Salmi is remembered with affection by many Ajijic old-timers. Jim Dunlap, who frequently visited his mother and stepfather – Virginia and Arthur Ganung – in the village during the 1970s, remembers Salmi as a regular at their parties who would “sometimes come in her bathrobe.”
While Salmi did not pursue photography as diligently in Ajijic as she had done earlier in her life, she did, nevertheless, take part in several local exhibitions, and also helped with the Children’s Art Program (CAP) organized by the Lake Chapala Society. For example, in 1973, she arranged for the Mexican-American hospital in Guadalajara to purchase art from the CAP to decorate a patient’s room.
In November 1973 Salmi held an solo show of portrait photos at “La Galeria del Lago de Chapala” on the plaza in Ajijic. Salmi’s photos were also included in a large group show at La Galeria del Lago the following August, alongside works by many other local artists, including Luz Luna, Jerry Carr, Fernando Garcia, Robert Neathery, Jose Antonio Santibañez, Allen Foster, Vee Greno, Armando Galvez, Jean Caragonne, Arthur Ganung, Virigina Ganung, Gloria Marthai, Dionicio Morales, Antonio López Vega, Priscilla Frazer, Eleanor Smart, Rowena Kirkpatrick, and the “children of Ajijic”.
The OM Gallery in Guadalajara (at the intersection of Lopez Cotilla and Chapultepec) featured some outstanding shows during its brief existence from 1975 to about 1978. Salmi was accorded the honor of a solo show there which opened on 25 October 1975 and ran for a month, and among those present at the opening was Guadalajara sculptor Alejandro Colunga.
In February 1976, Salmi’s photos were in a joint show at the newly-formed Wes Penn Gallery (16 de Septiembre #9, Ajijic) with fourteen oil paintings by Allen Wadsworth. (That gallery was owned by Jan Dunlap, and named for an ex-husband who had died. Following that joint show, the gallery’s next exhibit was a solo show of paintings by Synnove Pettersen.)
A second exhibit of Salmi’s work at the OM gallery in Guadalajara, a “review of portraits and pictures”, was mounted in June 1976.
Katie Goodridge Ingram, who ran a gallery in Ajijic for many years, remembers organizing works by Salmi for two shows, including one for Bellas Artes de Jalisco which was taken to Puerto Vallarta to celebrate the opening of a new museum. The fact that the venue had no windows, doors or security appears to have been a minor problem to the indomitable organizer: “We kept the art safe, got night guards, and somehow the show went up on the night assigned”. Other artists in that group show included Jean Caragonne; Conrado Contreras; Daniel de Simone; Gustel Foust; John Frost; Richard Frush; Hubert Harmon; Rocky Karns; Jim Marthai; Gail Michel; Bob Neathery; David Olaf; John K. Peterson; and Georg Rauch.
Sylvia Salmi passed away in January 1977 at the age of 67.
Salmi’s home in Ajijic has many connections to other artists. In 1976, Salmi rented her small casita to photographer Toni Beatty and her husband Larry Walsh for several months. Later, it was where photographer Bruce Greer established his residence-studio. Later still, the property became the home of Diane Murray (who had worked with Salmi and was also a photographer) and her daughter, Amanda, who is now pursuing her own career as an artist.
Not long before she died, Salmi had given all Herbert Solow’s personal papers to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details of the history of Art in Ajijic.
- Alexandra Bateman and Nancy Bollenbach (compilers). 2011. Ajijic: 500 years of adventurers (Thomas Paine Chapter NSDAR)
- Guadalajara Reporter: 10 November 1973; 21 February 1976, 5 Feb 1977.
- Katie Goodridge Ingram.”Lake Chapala Riviera”, in Mexico City News, 20 June 1976, p 13
Photographic Rights for Sylvia Salmi
Sylvia’s youngest granddaughter, Leslie Wilcox, is happy to communicate via Email with anyone seeking to obtain the rights to reproduce or publish any photos taken by her grandmother. See comments below for further details.
Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.
Tony Burton’s books include “Lake Chapala: A Postcard History” (2022), “Foreign Footprints in Ajijic” (2022), “If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants” (2020), (available in translation as “Si Las Paredes Hablaran”), “Mexican Kaleidoscope” (2016), and “Lake Chapala Through the Ages” (2008).
My name is Leslie Wilcox and I am Sylvia’s youngest granddaughter. Thank you so much for this lovely article! I thoroughly enjoyed it and the stories of my grandmother’s eccentricities, which there are plenty. She died when I was 10 so, other than spending the summer with her when I was 5 in 1972 and through her photography of which I am the keeper of anything that wasn’t donated to the Hoover Institute, articles like these help me stay connected with her. Her only daughter, my mother, Cassandra, passed young as well, at the age of 61 back in 1994 so my sister and I are Sylvia’s only remaining family that I am aware of.
Again, thank you!
Thank you for your very kind words which are sincerely appreciated. Please do let me know if you are able to fill in any gaps in the profile of your remarkable grandmother.
My name is María and I am a big fan of photography and mostly of Frida Kahlo. I would like to know more about your grandmother´s work, this is because i am doing an exposition about frida kahlo and her photographers. It would help me a lot if we have a conversation about her and her work.
Tell me if I could send you an email so we could talk.
Thanks for your comment, which I will forward on to Leslie. Good luck with your project, TB.
I am writing as I am working on a Netflix series and we would love to use one of the photographs made from your grandmother in one of our sets.
We would like to ask your permission first, as I havent found an active estate for your grandmother.
Please dont hesitate to ask any questions.
Silvia is representative of the very different Lakeside scene that Georg and I discovered and participated in when we arrived in 1976. So many wonderful amazing characters. We were people who knew how to create and enjoy our own entertainment before more official establishments appeared on the scene. I remember well the great “cultural”evenings at the Batemens, at Katie Ingrams, and Doreen and Ken Smedley’s. These included Isadora Duncan- like dances, classical guitar by John..?, readings by local authors. There was no admission or great expenditure of money for costumes, scenery, food and drink…., just the desire to get together, to express ourselves and enjoy each other’s company. Those definitely were the days.
Hope this finds you.
Just came across this website and your post. My mother, Jere Knight, was a good friend of your grandmother. Sylvia took my portrait as a child and visited our home with some regularity. I also visited her in the early ’70’s in Ajijic…. memorable to say the least.
Her photographs of Frida are terrific. I’m wondering if Sylvia and my mother were with Frida at the same time.
Would value a chance to connect with you.
I am the author of Frida: a Biography of Frida Kahlo (Harper & Row, 1983), and I greatly admire Sylvia Salmi’s photographs of Frida Kahlo. In a book about Mary McCarthy, I came across a photograph of Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson taken by Syliva Salmi in 1943. I would very much like to include that portrait in a book I have written about childhood in Wellfleet and Truro on Cape Cod in the 1940s and early19’50s. Could you please tell me how I can obtain a copy of this photograph and the permission to use it in my book? Thank you for your help. Hayden Herrera
Wow! It is a great honor to hear from you (I love your biography of FK). Unfortunately, I am unable to help you in regard to the rights for Sylvia Salmi’s photographs. I don’t know who owns the rights and am not sure what happened to her photographic material after her death though a few copies of some of her more famous photographs found their way into the hands of local collectors. I’m really sorry not to be able to be of more help; your work helped inspire my interest in Mexican art. Sincerely, Tony.
How wonderful! There is no remaining estate for my grandmother, Sylvia Salmi, that I am aware of. Any remaining photographs and negatives were donated by her only daughter, my mother, as far as I am aware. So please feel free to use her photographs assuming you don’t need permission from the organization(s) her work was donated to.
Please share with us the name of the Netflix special and when it is released.
Thank you Leslie! I just wrote you an email 🙂
Lovely to find this site. Sylvia and my mother (Jere Knight, wife of Eric Knight author of Lassie Come Home) were good friends. She visited our home in Bucks County PA. I subsequently visited her in Ajijic in 1972. Memorable!!
She took perhaps the best childhood photograph of me and gifted me a photograph of Frida.
Leslie — not sure which Netflix special you’re referring to… Please advise.
Lastly, would it be possible to copy this posting? I’d like to append it to the Frida photograph.
Replying via email
Dear Leslie – I found this site quite by accident. Your grandmother took many pictures of me as a child and one became a painting and then a cover of Good Housekeeping. I will send you images of them if you would like to have them. In the vague memories of my youth, I remember her in Old Lyme CT……long ago!