Genesis – Sebastian Salgado


The title of this exhibition which is also accompanied by a large book of over 500 photographs published by Taschen, recalls the book “The Creation” by Ernst Haas, which was an early colour monograph produced in the 1970’s while Salgado’s work although contemporary, is in black and white. Salgado is a leading photographer and has already gone down in photographic history. Until recently, he continued to work with film and still prints in a chemical darkroom after digitally producing negatives. I wanted to see his work in original print form since books hardly ever do justice to printed work – it all looks rather contrasty and lacking in tone with the emphasis on the content of the images, their message, rather than their reproduction.

Friends, Palyang and Hans from Belgium who visit the exhibition, give me a book about Sebastian Salgado, a Livre de Poche, which contains an introductory text and well reproduced images. I read this through and look at the images, some of which I know having seen an exhibition of his “Migrations” in New York in 2001. I am most struck by photographs of an open mine in which people the size of ants can be seen scurrying around.

I read an article in the BJP by someone who travels to Paris to interview Sebastian Salgado in his office-studio. This describes Salgado’s office-studio and his background, having grown up on a ranch in Brazil, an area of countryside that became deforested yet is now being restored as a nature park by Salgado and his wife.

When I hear there is a talk about Salgado at the Natural History Museum, I take a train the next day to attend it. The speaker is Parvati Nair, a cultural studies of Hispanics academic, who has written a book about Salgado entitled “A Different Light“, the subject of the talk. Professor Nair works at the UN university in Barcelona and first came into contact with Salgado when his Terra body of work was being shown; she was struck by the quality of the photographs and found she could relate to the subject matter since it reminded her of that part of her childhood between 3 and 6 when she lived in India. Salgado is presenting scenes that are largely foreign to a western audience (and I wonder if this is behind some of the criticism directed at him by Western critics).

She saw Migrations in 2003 at The Barbican in London and found she related to it through her work which was at that time partially concerned with the migration of people. She looked for a book on his work but could find none so decided to write her own. She sees Salgado as a documentarian, a visionary and an artist. She shows a few images on a screen but this is more of a talk than a show; Salgado has given her permission to show these images, one each from Salgado’s major photo-essays. Salgado comes from Brazil where he was born to the son of a cattle rancher in 1944; he studied economics to doctorate level, met his wife while doing so and later became involved in politics against the regime and as a result was forced into exile. It was his wife who first lent him a camera and she continues to support his work being a vital part of the Salgado brand. Salgado is concerned with the land and photographs modernity, modernity being the world that has emerged with the industrialisation of nations that began in the eighteenth century, a world in which man became more important than his environment, anthropocentric. There is a need to look at his work not just as a series of photo-essays but as a corpus; this helps one to understand what he is about.

Salgado is engaged in a project around his home, noted also by the journalist who interviewed him and obviously something Salgado wants to promote. In his photographic work, he will often stay in a locality for months as was the case in the Galapagos; this gives him a chance to engage with the subject he is covering and in particular the people. Salgado has the kind of natural charisma that puts his subjects at ease and hence is able to make photographs with mutual consent; he finds connecting with children a useful way to make contact with a community. Although photographs are made in the field, much also happens back in his Parisian studio where his wife plays an actively important part in the editing process so much so that she is now credited for it. Salgado himself is a very focused man, multi-lingual, generous and welcoming so people don’t feel threatened by him. Although nowadays very much part of a team, it is Salgado who makes the photographs; for the first part of his career, he worked for agencies such as Magnum and was very much his own man. To read what makes Salgado Salgado, one really needs to read Parvati Nair’s book it seems but she stresses the way Salgado has made images with which many people can connect. It is surely significant that his current exhibition is not being shown in an art context but in a major international museum such as The Natural History Museum where the emphasis is not on photography but where photography plays an important part.

A good website to see is which showcases and promotes Salgado’s work.

After the talk, I take some refreshment and then go to see the exhibition; I am expecting a mammoth space since there are over 500 images in the catalogue but fortunately they are not all on show and the exhibition is a digestible whole. On entry, I am struck by the quality of the printing – this is not an aspect of Salgado’s work I am accustomed to and for me, it establishes him as a great photographer rather than just an image maker that might be the impression from looking at books of his photos. Some of these images presented in books look a bit treacly but here there is wonderful use of light, evident in a more balanced contrast. Anyone who has tried to make black and white photographs look good will know that this is not an easy matter rather a skill. There is something epic too about the compositions rather like those great works of art from the past that show biblical scenes. Salgado shows the awesome side to nature as well as it’s majesty and uniqueness. Looking at them close up, some detail looks a bit vague and one is aware of grain yet when one takes a few steps back to see the whole image, these elements do not detract from aesthetics of the photographs which take on a life of their own being more than the sum of their parts. These black and white images are not black and shite images, but are luminous and convey a sense of space.

One can buy the catalogue of the exhibition, a large book about A3+ size, yet in one of the rooms of this exhibition there is a cabinet containing an even bigger book about A1 size of which there is a limited edition of 3,000, each one coming with it’s own reading stand. It is a two volume work, signed and numbered by Salgado.

There is some helpful blurb facing one on entry, written by his wife Lellia, that explains the exhibition as being about the world that existed before man, a world that started millions if not billions of years ago .. a world that existed before modern life accelerated.

The first print that one sees on entering caught my eye immediately and I found myself wanting to look at it for sometime. It is titled “Antarctic Peninsula, 2005” and captioned “Iceberg between Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands on the Weddell Sea” revealing a complex variety of forms made by a large iceberg; there is an archway through which a richly toned dark sea flows while part of the iceberg looks as though it might be the corner of a giant castle with straight and regular walls although it is in fact another bit of this transitory object.

Another image to the right of the entry, one of a number of penguin colonies, is entitled “Antarctic Peninsula, 2005” contains a wide range of tones as well as a sweeping landscape much of it populated by penguins. The caption is “A colony of chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antartica) at Bailey Head on Deception Island” and the image reveals a snaking ridge on which the penguins stand, overlooked by cloud-topped mountains in the background.

An image entitled “South Georgia, 2009” of Southern Elephant Seal (Mirunga leonina) calves looks slightly different from other photographs evident with a rather surreal looking seal in the foreground. The world does not look like this even in black and white! The lack of grain suggests that this is a digital photograph, digital being a relatively new venture for Salgado who otherwise uses black and white film, his favourite being Kodak Tri-X which has now been discontinued.

“South Sandwich Islands, 2009” (Saunders Island is inhabited by penguins of several different species, notably the chinstrap (Pygocelus antartica) which number more than 150,000 couples”) is a large vertical landscape photograph in which a group of penguins can be seen roosting on a flat outcrop of rock, dwarfed by the rugged terrain around it.

“Valdes Peninsula, Argentina, 2004” is a close up of the huge tail of a Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) from which water pours, shortly before it dives.

“Falkland Islands, 2009” shows a large albatross flying directly towards the viewer across  a coastline landscape covered by albatrosses.

“Punta Cormorant, Floreana Island, Galapagos, Ecudor (2004)” reveals greater flamingos in a salty lagoon; there is a good range of tones with the dark water highlighting the “white” of the flamingos.

“Madagascar, 2010” is an aerial view of the “Bemaraha National Park” that shows a band of trees that runs diagonally though a multitude of stony peaks among which single trees can be seen growing in places.

“Sibert Island, West Sumatra, Indonesia, 2008” shows a leader of the Mentawi clan, a brilliant study of sidelight falling on a largely dark scene. This is one of a number of portraits of extraordinary looking characters.

One section is called Africa. There is a photograph of a leopard drinking from a pool presumably at night since much of the image is dead black. The title is “Damaraland, Namibia, 2005” and it is captioned, “A leopard (Panthera pardus) in the Barab River Valley”

Salgado’s photographs seem to transcend genre – landscape, portrait, black and white, natural history, travel photography etc are all part of his work; one can call him a photo-journalist but this term does not describe him very well since he is not working for journals or any particular market.

The day after seeing the exhibition, I meet with OCA tutor Robert Enoch and we later shared a beverage at The Photographer’s Gallery and discussed Salgado’s work. He mentions the antagonism contained in the approach of making aesthetically pleasing images of truly horrible subjects such as starvation; Salgado’s work might be considered too visually effective! His images do operate on a documentary level yet can fit into a fashion magazine like Vogue. For instance, is said that someone who he had photographed wanted to obtain a copy of the book it was in and was shocked to realise it would cost her about a year’s wages. Such questions around the exploitive nature of photo-journalism are not only raised about Salgado’s work but that of other photo-journalists yet Slagado stands out for his almost classical approach enhanced by a romantic flavour.

I also hear that the OCA will not be arranging a study day for this exhibition on the assumption that most people will go to see it anyway; it appears that OCA days are to draw attention to work that one would otherwise overlook. This is understandable and yet there is so much to learn from Salgado; he ticks all the boxes when it comes down to matters such as composition and I personally gained an insight into a method of not just titling images but adding informative captions too, which is part of my field of study at present. I approach Robert Enoch and also Gareth Dent of the OCA and eventually a study day is agreed. My argument that as student we need to learn to consider rather than consume what we see has been listened to. A good review can be found here.

3 thoughts on “Genesis – Sebastian Salgado

  1. Great lobbying job Amano, well done! I can’t make the study day but I will be visiting on a weekend, and I have the book Genesis waiting for me at the Photographers Gallery. Doubt that I can add anything to your review but it will be my first entry for my Landscape blog.

  2. Pingback: GENESIS platinum prints from Sebastiao Salgado | Amano photographic studies

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