Genesis 2 – a visit with the Open College of the Arts

A second visit to the Genesis exhibition this time with the Open College of the Arts. I am interested to understand the work better and also to take on board some of the criticism being levelled at Salgado; for instance, the head of OCASA (the student association of the college) apparently thinks poorly of it so is not present today though it would have been good to hear his views.

I have been asked to give a short talk to get the discussion going at the student meeting afterwards and have therefore prepared a short brief based on comments by a previous OCA tutor, Jose Navarro, as well as views expressed by Parvati Nair, the speaker we are going to hear after seeing the exhibition.

OCA tutor, Robert Enoch, starts the ball rolling by mentioning the role of Vale Mining in the sponsorship of this exhibition. According to Wikapedia, it was “Elected world’s worst company in January 2012 by the “Public Eye People’s”, award that refers to human rights and environment, held since 2000 by the NGOs Greenpeace and Berne Declaration.” This does make the exhibition open to wider debate and yet I do not see this as a reason for dismissing the exhibition. After all, it might be understood as a way to draw companies that seem to be ignorant of environmental concerns into the debate. Personally, I find it notable that some other body with more green credentials was not willing to sponsor Salgado’s work.

Before entering the exhibition, I ask for a press pack as a student who keeps a blog about exhibitions seen. I am refused point blank. These are only for journalists and have to be pre-ordered! I had previously tried emailing the museum and received no reply.

Robert Enoch asks us to consider both form and content; tonality, visual drama, design, the play of light and dark are all themes present in this work. He asks us to be critical. I don’t disagree with this yet to read a photograph rather than just look at it does require a degree of subjectivity on behalf of the viewer.

There is initially some discussion of the technical side of Salgado’s work, a request for EXIF data which is not given as is the case in most exhibitions. This is perhaps an interest typical of the amateur and yet among photographers it is a valid question. Salgado’s modus operandi is described in a recent interview from the BJP, March 2013. He has been shooting with a digital camera since 2008 and so much of the Genesis work has been shot digitally although Salgado has kept to a similar way of working by not viewing images on screen and making contact sheets. The digital files are processed to produce similar effects to  Tri-X, the film Salgado used to use, with a software programme called DXO.

This study visit though was not really about technical considerations but more concerned with a wider reading of the work on show. Salgado’s photographs are wonderfully composed and an education for anyone interested in making photographs (much of the OCA course is concerned with the practical application of photography) yet for some the aesthetical appeal of Salgado’s work presents problems since it is seen as a misrepresentation of reality. For instance, the first photograph one is likely to see on entering shows a section of iceberg that has a varied display of forms from an archway to what looks like the corner of a castle, all beautifully printed with dark rich tones evident in the sea that balance the lighter tones of the ice itself. While I can see that the way photography selects minute views of reality and then blows them up as representations of the real while changing the way they look, it is surely a mistake to dismiss this since art is about aesthetics and photography can be art.

One might of course consider that the aesthetics is being over done here. Salgado is a trained economist, an education that Parvati Nair says accounts for the subjects he chooses; he has worked primarily as a photo-journalist and undertakes advertising assignments on a regular basis. He can be hired for $30,000 per day! Some of the images do look a bit unreal though such as one of a group of seals accompanied by a single gull. Here the furry exterior of the foremost seal looks as though it has been manipulated possibly with an HDR technique; the blacks in the seal’s body may have been too dense and hence it was considered necessary to correct this. However, much of Salgado’s work can be seen as a lesson in making photographs and looking at his work, students start recognising the use of compositional aides such as lines notably diagonals, points and the isolation of the subject matter.

Some question the photographer’s presence and suggest he might be compromising the wildlife he is recording. I have heard from nature photographers (and experienced the same recently in the Arctic) that much wildlife in these wild places is approachable particularly Albatrosses which Salgado has photographed; the birds in these images have not been photoshopped the animals are merely not reacting in the way that those used to the vagaries of man predictably do. This is part of what the exhibition is about, a part of the planet where nature rather than man is dominant although it is of course under threat. Another image with a wonderful design is of Chinstrap Penguins on the South Sandwhiich Islands, photographed in 2009. One is looking down a cliff face over the penguins onto rocks below.

One question that is asked about nature photography is the carbon footprint of the photographer; can the work the photographer is doing really justify the use of natural resources and the pollution they might be causing in these remote areas. In the case of Salgado one might assume it is since his work will be seen by millions and the environmental message behind the images is going to make people consider the dire implications of humanity’s present course. Working with a company like Vale Mining is perhaps an example of how those ignorant are starting to see things differently althoough one might also take the view that such a company is merely salving it’s conscience.

Walking around this exhibition for the second time, I find myself struck again by the quality of the work on show. These are photographs one look at again and again. In a considertion of Salgado’s work one surely can not overlook the sheer enjoyment that his work can give. His portrait studies of people who live remote from what most viewers would call civilised ways in communities that have barely changed for hundreds if not thousands of years are insightful. Here we see not archetypes but real people, characters who may look strange to us and yet are human in spite of their primitiveness.

A stunning view is titled “Kamchatka, Russia, 2006” and shows a landscape below a layer of cloud as well as a mountains cape above it. It looks like two photographs made into one and there may well have been some difference in the image processing of the two yet this shot can not help one feel somewhat spellbound at the difference between what is down here and in a certain sense familiar and that which is above the clouds. At times, one can not help but question some of the compositions in which the obvious horizon is not horizontal as one might expect. The lop-sided view can help as a compositional device such as in a view of seagulls and coast where the photographer is apparently shooting from a boat yet in one of the images used to promote the exhibition as a whole and found on the cover of the Taschen catalogue, the apparent symmetry of the river winding it’s way along a deep valley is undermined by the slanted horizon in the background. This image was presumably made from a plane but that does not excuse or alter the composition.

Parvati Nair in discussion

Parvati Nair in discussion

After seeing the exhibition, we could easily have used up more than the hour allotted, we went to listen to Parvati Nair talk. This turned out to be a question and answer session which did not really allow the speaker to expand on her subject of Salgado and the Genesis in particular. She did however tell us that Salgado’s commitment was such that he travelled for 8 years to “pristine” parts of the planet to make this body of work. What makes Salgado one of the world’s greatest photographers, according to her as the only person to  have written a book on the photographer, is that he has a panoramic vision as well as a conceptual orientation (although he is not a conceptual artist) by taking up subjects such as capitalism and it’s effects. When dealing with subjects like workers (the subject of a previous body of work) he not only portrays them as ants on a landscape he also closes in and portrays individuals whom he has got to know. Of primary concern is modernity and it’s socio-economic consequences.

As questions from the audience begin, OCA tutor Robert Enoch pops in his question about the part Vale Mining have played in the making of this exhibition. Parvati Nair replies by saying that photography suffers such consequences and that the ethical dimension of photography needs more considertion.

The Genesis exhibition differs from other exhibitions of Salgado’s work in the smaller images being used; more images are therefore in evidence. Does not this put an emphasis on quantity rather than quality? Perhaps this set of images is not so arresting as work from other bodies of work and there is greater emphasis on aesthetic images.Nair herself finds that the use of digital techniques is resulting in the over-working of photographs which often looked better in analogue days when this temptation was not there.

I ask Parvati Nair whether there are any particular images of Salgado’s that she likes. She refers to that of the blind woman which is featured on the cover of her book; for her it is a commentary on seeing which is what photography is about. Another photograph of a school child reminds her of her upbringing as a child in India.

For Parvati Nair, a key aspect of Salgado’s work is the way he handles light; her book about him is called “A Different Kind of Light.” I like her talk but she does not really get the chance to expand on her topic, the Genesis exhibition, which is dealt with at length in the last chapter of her book.

It seems Nair does not like the digital effects Salgado has started employing in his work.

I start the discussion afterwards with a short talk at the suggestion of Robert Enoch by saying that I thought it would be worthwhile for the OCA to visit this exhibition since it is too easy to see an exhibition and pass it over, to consume rather than consider it and it is surely an body of work worth considering. I mention Jose’s article in which he can’t make up his mind over Salgado who he admires for the awe,sadness,admiration,anger of his work but finds the visual language rather simplistic  Do not get to finish my talk (it apparently lacks structure) but would like to have finished by saying “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!” by which I mean “Please don’t let your criticism of Salgado spoil your enjoyment of his work!”

Robert Enoch (centre left) at the OCA discussion group with Seigfreid (centre right)

Robert Enoch (centre left) at the OCA discussion group with Seigfreid (centre right)

I find it hard to follow the group discussion which seems rather opinionated. The involvement of Vale Mining, a company that has been lampooned by Greenpeace and others for their deplorable environmental record, is a complex question and while it appears to reek of hypocrisy, getting companies like Vale Mining to sponsor nature photography could be a way to encourage them to think more about the environemnt. Such sponsorship of nature photography is not uncommon and seems to be a small step towards educating those who think that the environment does not matter. There is a political edge to the exhibition and this complicates any reading of it. A

re the photographs respectful to nature? A good question. I think so, others apparently did not. As Parvati Nair writes … “In a different light” and somehow the OCA chat does seem to embrace this.

There is suggestion that this is a retirement portfolio, that the message is not being conveyed since we are left in doubt as to what it is and that there is nothing new in the approach since has not Attenborough done it all before? What is Salgado trying to say?

Robert Enoch gives us a demo of the way images can be converted to black and white in Photoshop and then burned and dodged for further effect. Images can be converted using the black and white adjustment layer but also  with a Gradient Map …

PHOTO PROCESSING TUTORIAL NOTES:

The most appropriate use of these techniques is in image correction or to subtly shift compositional balance. It’s possible to take this too far and end up with a painting rather than a photograph.

I can’t teach you how to use every image processing program out there, but I can give you a few pointers here to help you on your way.

1. Making photos black and white: you can either use the Black & White Adjustment Layer, which is advised in all Photoshop work as it is non-destructive. Always save your files to Photoshop format (PSD) so that the layers are saved. You can also use the Gradient Map Adj. Layer (with a black and white gradient) which tends to preserve the contrast of the original image well. You can also go to Image> Mode> Grayscale, but this is a permanent change. Obviously this doesn’t matter if you Save As “Landscape_1_B&W”.

2. Split-Contrast: a difficult technique in the darkroom which is far easier in digital, whereby the image is given different contrast (Curves or Levels) in different areas of the picture. This can enhance Depth and help achieve a better compositional balance. Use a Curves Adj. Layer, a subtle S shape will increase contrast, an inverted S will reduce contrast. In the Layers palette, the rectangle to the right Curves is a Layer Mask. When you use the Brush to paint on this layer with Black, you are removing the effect of the Curves layer from the image, i.e. returning it to the way it was before you increased or decreased contrast. You can also use the Gradient Tool to mask parts of the image. This can be useful with burnt out skies. If you use White (Press X to change from black to white) you are removing the ‘masking’ and so will affect the image with the Adj. Layer.

3. Dodging and Burning is about selectively lightening or darkening parts of the image. The Dodge and Burn tools are destructive in Photoshop, so here is a better way:
Create a New Layer.
Edit> Fill> 50% Grey. You should also be able to press Shift F5 to do this.
Change the Blending Mode of this layer to Overley.
Now use the Brush tool on 5 – 10% to lighten (White brush) and darken (Black brush) areas of the image. This was very evident in Salgado’s ice berg picture. You can then reduce the effect by reducing the Opacity of that ‘Dodging & Burning’ layer.

Try not to over-do any of this, as Salgado and his assistants evidently have – we all noticed that! Most photographers use these techniques but not in a way that you would notice them. This is because there is a danger that the Form (design) of the picture becomes more prominent than the subject itself. This is tantamount to being a CRIME for a social documentary photographer! You do notice them a lot in fashion/commercial photography and particularly weddings/portrait photography, where the ‘ideal’ is favoured over the real!!

After the discussion I feel somewhat let down. The result of seeing a hero destroyed? I do not think so rather Salgado is a photographer I want to better understand and to do that I need to discover him for myself. I continue to read Parvati Nair’s book, in particular the last chapter which discusses this body of work.

After the day ends, I find myself on a train with fellow student Siegfried who also wrote about the visit.

Another resource is an interview with Salgado on his work as a documentary photographer and it’s place in the documentary tradition as well as Salgado talking about his own contribution to the environment. Michael Freeman has discussed the alternative prints to this exhibition made on platinum paper.

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2 thoughts on “Genesis 2 – a visit with the Open College of the Arts

  1. Pingback: Review: Sebastião Salgado – Genesis | Lucy's OCA Learning Log

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

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