Sebastião Salgado is a living legend. He produces majestic photographs of timeless subjects as part of vast projects that span continents and take years to complete, and to top it off he only gave up his day job as an economist in his late thirties. He is in many ways a photographer’s photographer. But Salgado is also a photographic anomaly, whose work very awkwardly straddles the lines between fine art and documentary photography. Nowhere are these varying and contradictory attributes better displayed than in the exhibition of his latest project Genesis at the Natural History Museum.
In Genesis Salgado sets out to document the few areas of the planet that remain relatively untouched by modern man. Traveling by air, land, and sea to the great natural wildernesses of the polar regions, the Amazonian rainforests and the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, and recording epic landscapes, incredible wildlife and the indigenous people that live in these pristine environments. His message is that we have strayed too far from our origins, that instead of co-existing with nature we have engaged in the unsustainable predation of it. The result is a vast exhibition running to several hundred photographs, biblical in scale and form, and a gargantuan limited edition book to match.
Salgado’s technical virtuosity is indisputable. His eye for a powerful image, his ability to pack his photographs with overwhelming amounts of detail and his incredible attention to black and white printing make for a series of photographs of rare, if rather over the top, beauty. From the first images of fragile penguin colonies perched on massive ice ridges, to the final photographs of boundless Amazonian jungles cresting on isolated promontories of rock, Salgado’s pictures are consistently, powerfully beautiful in that way only a photograph can be.
But while this scale and beauty defines Genesis it also noticeably undermines it because of Salgado’s weakness for the epic. While these vast, sublime landscapes dwarfing tiny animals and people are awe inspiring at first they very quickly fatigue you, and soon start to wash over you with relatively little effect. One landscape quickly resembles another, one tribe could be neighbours of the last. Amongst these unreal scenes the photographs that begin to really stand out are often the most apparently unremarkable ones.
The image that sticks most resoundingly in my head is an understated photograph of a marine iguana’s claw, made up of thousands of tiny scales resembling interlaced black diamonds, or the cracked mud in a dry lake bed. There are a few of these beautiful little details in Genesis, and the contrast they make with the bombastic images around them is really striking, but they are too few for the effect to feel like it is intentional. Whatever your view of creation, whether intelligent design or gradual evolution, it’s these fascinating tiny details that make up the remarkable tapestry of the natural world, and it seems like a missed opportunity not to have included more of them.
Salgado’s over the top depictions of the natural world are one thing, but what I find more troubling is the representation of the indigenous tribes in his photographs. On the most straightforwardly obvious level there seems to be an implicit equation between indigenous people and the animals in Genesis, a sense that these people are more closely related to a lemur or an iguana than they are to the visitors of the exhibition. The subtext throughout seems to be that these tribes, like the environments they inhabit, are impotent to protect themselves, that they need us.
But rather confusingly at the same time Salgado also seems to be romanticising these tribes as examples of humanity unspoilt, living simple lives which we perhaps ought to emulate. This combined with the very definite sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ generated by the photographs brings to mind the work of eighteenth and nineteenth century ethnographic painting and photography, the awkward adulation of the ‘noble savage’ living a naive way of life in harmony with the natural world, but a way of life doomed by the very things that make it admirable. Equally like some early ethnographic work Salgado’s photographs feel uncertain about their function, to be admired as an art object, or to be used as a source of documentary information about these tribes?
Salgado has long been a target for those who believe that beautiful photography is inherently inauthentic or lacking in truth. I don’t really intend to add to this beyond saying it’s rather fitting that this show is on so soon after much debate and discussion on the same issue in relation to last year’s World Press winner. Salgado for his part distances himself from the artist label, ‘I’m not an artist. An artist makes an object. Me, it’s not an object, I work in history, I’m a storyteller’ he’s supposed to have said. Looking on these immaculate prints and the vast artists edition book with its £6,000 price tag these words don’t seem overly convincing.
I could have let most of these complaints go, because Genesis potentially has an incredibly important campaigning function which is perhaps bigger than any of my concerns about the art value of the photographs or the way Salgado represents his subjects. But as I was about to round off this piece with a fairly ambivalent conclusion I noticed that the exhibition was sponsored by Vale, a Brazilian mining corporation that in 2012 was voted worst company in the world for it’s human rights and environmental credentials in an annual vote held by Greenpeace and the Berne Declaration. This is a far more troubling incongruity, one I will be writing on in greater detail in the coming days. (now here)
By any measure Genesis is a remarkable project, unparalleled in its scale and ambition, but equally epic in the problems that run through it. While a good exhibition plants seeds of thought about the topics it tackles, for me thoughts of the problems in this show lingered long after the initial impact of the photographs had faded. Salgado is an amazing photographer in the classic sense of the word, but there is an inescapable feeling that his work hasn’t really moved on in substance or in it’s politics since he first began to come to public notice thirty years ago. For devoted fans of his work, or ardent admirers of the natural world this show is a must, but be prepared to look below the surface of all those beautifully made prints, and contemplate some of the more troubling themes that lie beneath. Genesis is on until 8th September 2013.