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The Curator of Chiaroscuro

Sean Sheehan

Genesis, by Sebastião Salgado and Lella Salgado, Taschen, 520 pp, £44, ISBN: 978-3836538725
A Different Light: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado, by Parvati Nair, Duke University Press, 376 pp, £21, ISBN: 978-0822350484

Where do you go when everywhere seems to be the subject of a travel guide, when the whole world is being disciplined to profiting from the needs of consumers, when not just cities like London but the globe itself is being reduced to Blake’s “chartered streets” – chronicled and digitised – and the planet is no longer a lonely place? The answer is to go to the places Sebastião Salgado has spent eight years photographing, parts of the world unpolluted by modern life, extreme places where only the very adventurous or the very wealthy manage to go. Genesis, as described in one of the introductory panels at the current Salgado exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, “is a journey to the landscapes, seascapes, animals and peoples that have so far escaped the long reach of today’s world”.

The photographer Salgado knows all about today’s world and in the past he presented us with breathtaking images of our mercantile existence, as in his famous series from the Brazilian Serra Pelada mines that caught moments of a twentieth century biblical hell in all its shock and awe, using the lens of his camera to entrance the viewer. Now, at the fag-start of another century, he returns to Brazil (to its rainforest, not its gold mines), visits the nomadic Nenets in northern Siberia, travels to the Galapagos, Antarctica, Madagascar, Ethiopia – and many other places not yet mapped by Google – and this time his epic style of black-and-white photography is turned to subjects one normally expects to find in a majestic David Attenborough nature extravaganza or a BBC documentary on a lost tribe in the middle of nowhere.

The artistry of Salgado’s work is undeniable and unsurpassed and one reviewer has remarked that his photographs “are so beautiful they almost obliterate his underlying message”. I wonder, though, if it is not the other way around and it is the message, so seemingly beautiful, that almost obliterates the aura that his photography is capable of creating. In the foreword to Genesis, Salgado states his aim “to show nature at its best”, pay “homage to the grandeur of nature”, and with his pictures of unknown communities “capture a vanishing world, a part of humanity that is on the verge of disappearing, yet in many ways lives in harmony with nature”. This is disturbingly close to what a Disney documentary might aspire to and it occludes the sense of nature as random mayhem, not a New-Age-like state of harmony but a violent contingency. Recalling that thought-provoking (YouTubed) scene in Examined Life where Žižek walks among piles of rubbish, nature is a series of violent catastrophes not a delicately balanced living organism. It is wishful thinking to conceive of nature as a harmonious whole threatened by the hubris of man, a secular version of the Fall as Žižek puts it, and the temptation to think like this fosters a conservative ideology.

From this perspective, there is something idealistic and romantic about Genesis, making many of the photographs – colonies of seals and seabirds on rock terraces in the Falklands, a giant otter by the river, penguins (bloody penguins, haven’t we seen enough images of them?) – seem like shots from a TV nature programme, too gorgeous for their own good. The scope for a fairytale vision shows itself at the very start of the book in a shot of an iceberg on the Weddell Sea, atop of which the shape of a castle tower, carved by wind erosion, looms like a mystic presence from a medieval saga. Some of the shots of people who probably haven’t been photographed before, on the other hand, are too simply “realistic”: those in strict portrait mode, like the women wearing lip plates, tend to be primarily of anthropological interest.

There is also, though, a tremendous lot to admire about Genesis. I can remember being disappointed by a book about the Second World War, composed of rare colour photographs taken during the conflict, because something important was lost rather than gained by the use of colour. With Salgado it is not only historicity that his black-and-white photography captures but also the power of form and design in the most unlikeliest of moments, like his shots of an outspread iguana’s claw, rivers in South America or landscapes in Colorado, rendering surreal what is also commonplace. There is something magical about his ability to allow the chemical process of photography to merge with the urge to find form where there is only formless phenomenon. Using just black and white removes the distraction of colours and at their best Salgado’s photographs are complete unto themselves, not immobilising time in the obvious sense but arresting a moment in its irreversible totality, bringing to mind Barthes’s insight in Camera Lucida that while a memory can be grammatically expressed by the perfect tense “the tense of the Photograph is the aorist”; the photograph, he said, is a “spectre” and the best of Salgado’s photographs possess and exhibit this spectral presence.

There is a separate booklet that comes with Genesis and while it contains informative details about the subject matter of each photograph there is little on how they were taken and the reader may be left wishing to learn more about how particular shots were set up. A brief remark in the introduction confirms that Salgado now shoots digitally but has contact sheets made up; back in the lab, it seems, the raw data is converted into a negative and then printed usually the traditional darkroom.

Genesis is listed at £44 but is available for not much more than half this price online; incredible value when you consider that this is a book of more than five hundred pages. In one way there are too many pages: when a shot is presented as a spread the size of the book is such that its binding makes for a thick spine that causes a small blur where the two pages come together. But this is carping for the sake of it and the same goes for the observation that while some of the shots lend themselves to landscape presentations the book is in portrait mode. The book has to go one way or the other, though it didn’t have to include fold-out pages where a number of smaller images are displayed. I found myself unwilling to promptly switch from one scale of composition to another, skipping the smaller images and making a mental note to come back to them later. Genesis is a book to return to. It will grow on you.

The importance of Salgado as a photographer is indisputable, he is the curator of chiaroscuro, and it is remarkable that Parvati Nair’s A Different Light: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado is the first full-length study of him to appear in print. Her book offers an interdisciplinary overview of his work, starting with Other Americas (1977), about the indigenous populations of Latin America, and Sahel: L’homme en détresse (1973-88) on the dispossessed of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Then there is the mighty Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age (1993) and Migrations: Humanity in Transition (2000), More recent photo-essays include Africa (2007) and now Genesis.

Nair places Salgado in the tradition of earlier humanist photographers like Paul Strand, Robert Capra, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Josef Koudelka and this helps situate his transition, or decline if you wish to be harsh on the matter, to the bioplanetary romanticism of Genesis. The parameters of his past work are defined by a preoccupation with the dispossessed of the ɡlobal south and the experience of alterity and Nair makes as good a case as is possible for the continuity of these concerns in Genesis.

… the transposition of Salgado’s visual discourse onto nonhuman subjects confers on them the same rights to be seen and heard as humans claim ... By visually bracketing together humans and other living creatures, Salgado achieves two things: first, he highlights the arbitrariness of human-centred divisions that alienate and undermine, as well as undervalue, the nonhuman; second, by bringing all creatures together in one frame, Salgado enables the alienation of the nonhuman to reveal itself as also a form of self-alienation, one that the human has ultimately imposed on himself.

This is fine as far as it goes but it remains a theoretical observation that needs backing up by attending to individual photographs and analysing them so as to bring out how they reveal the “arbitrariness of human-centred divisions” and the “form of self-alienation” that humans have imposed on themselves. Nair, professor of Hispanic, Cultural and Migration Studies at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Film at the University of London, where she directs the Centre for the Study of Migration, is very good at discussing Salgado’s earlier work but she faces an uphill task in discerning the qualities she justifiably admires in him as equally present in Genesis. Part of the problem is that Nair is at her best in the realm of theory, drawing impressively on insights gleaned from the likes of Derrida and Merleau-Ponty; what is sometimes missing are close readings of Salgado’s photographs as works of photography. This is where he stands or falls.

June 17th, 2013

Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles' Oedipus: A Reader's Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).