Review: Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis at the Natural History Museum

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Sebastião Salgado

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.

6 thoughts on “Review: Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis at the Natural History Museum

  1. I fortunately got to see Salgado’s GENESIS on opening day at the Natural History Museum. I was keen as I had read a direct quote from him saying it won’t be coming to NYC due to the cost of putting it on at the Met Museum and their packed scheduling.

    I’ve always been in two minds to Salgado’s images. I do appreciate beauty or strong aesthetics in photography, even to draw the viewer in to harder or more unpalatable images, but with Salgado I always found it too much of a disconnect – as you also discuss. It didn’t sit easy with me. But, for GENESIS, laying out the world and its last “indigenous” people in all their glory perfectly suits his style. Especially when the images are between 24×18″ and 5×3′!! They were just sumptuous and you accurately describe why.

    For me, if I had two criticisms of the images and sequencing one would be there was quite a lot of repetition. It was not the scale, power and awe of the images that made the exhibit “wash over me” at times but it was this repetition that made me numb to it in parts and skip some images; yet another whale tail, yet more penguins. Secondly more images than you might realize have been lifted from his previous projects and get a second airing for GENESIS. This observation I owe to Magda Rakita as she has a few of his earlier books and felt a little peeved that there was some duplication of images from these.

    I thought there were some amazing, dignified, and spiritual portraits and group shots in this work to go along with the animals and landscapes – taking aside his choice of how to depict them as the last of the indigenous peoples. Salgado deliberately tipped the scales in this direction. At one point he even mentions that some of the Papuan tribes wear t-shirts when not hunting but he chose to deliberately focus on their more indigenous “look.” At least he was open about this.

    All that being said I personally think the work Tim Allen did for BBC Earth’s Human Planet is far and away the best work of this kind – showing harmony and conflict of humans with the environment and the way everything on earth works. I prefer the way he photographed things and the fact it is in colour and therefore more true to the subject. The B&W of Salgado is still too overtly cinematic and slightly dissociative to me.

    Ultimately I did get a sense of harmony and transcendence that perfectly encapsulates what he was trying to do here, at least according to his TED talk. But then I read your sting-in-the tail conclusion, which I did not notice when I was at the exhibit. I am SHOCKED about the VALE sponsorship given his very public stance on conservation and the subject or “pitch” of GENESIS. SHOCKED!

    • Thanks for the comment Ed, lots of good points. I definitely agree that his style is better suited to this sort of subject matter, but it can still be quite problematic because of his rather OTT style.

      Also agree that the curation of the exhibition could have been better. Felt like there often wasn’t much thought about how each image related to those on either side of it.

      Also agree that it was good he was honest about his avoiding certain things like clothing. Although I think I noticed that several of the inuits were wearing modern camoflage pattern jackets, so have to question the value of his avoiding signs of modernity.

      I didn’t see that series actually, I will have to look it up. I think there always needs to be caution in this sort of situation of showing people from other cultures, particularly where the relationship is so loaded and one sided as in this case.

      I was pretty shocked as well about his relationship with Vale. I’ve done quite a bit more research around it and am writing a piece on it which will be online on Monday.

  2. Having got to this show only today I have to wonder at it’s validity. It is, as you say, a remarkable project, but why was it delivered in such a remarkably poor way? Over processed, over sized and over hyped. There were scant ‘good prints’ amongst them and if, as the man says, he is not an artist then should he be judged on the craftsmanship of the work? If so, I found it sadly lacking. I went expecting to come away with a sense of awe, in the end it was a sense of so what.

    • Absolutely agree John, it was all too much for me. Validity is an interesting term. I suppose the only validity it needs for the host institution is that Salgado is a big name, will draw lots of visitors etc.

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