Sebastião Salgado: Genesis @ICP

JTF (just the facts): More than 200 black-and-white photographs, framed in black wood and matted, and exhibited against painted walls (gray, red, green) on both floors of the museum. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, in various sizes. The show was curated by Lélia Wanick Salgado.

A companion monograph of this body of work was published in 2013 by Taschen (here, 520 pages, with more than 250 photos, including 17 gate-folds), and is available from the ICP bookstore for $70. Juliano Salgado has also directed and produced a documentary film about the making of Genesis. (Installation shots below, ©International Center of Photography, 2014. Photograph by John Berens.)

Comments/Context: I remember where I was when I first saw a photograph by Sebastião Salgado. I was standing on the subway platform at Spring Street, circa 1987, having waited long minutes for the E train to take me somewhere after work, when a poster on the wall snapped me out of a weary, self-pitying reverie.

The poster showed untold hundreds of men, covered in dirt and muddy slime, and climbing primitive wooden ladders up steep earthen walls from a pit below. It wasn’t clear where this scene was supposed to be, or what it was or even if it was real or hallucinatory. The image was tinted, if I recall, a ghoulish-coppery green, like an LSD trip in a bad Hollywood movie.

What wasn’t in doubt was the scale of the misery depicted. Like Egyptian slaves in a DeMille Biblical epic, or the damned clamoring their way out of Hell in a painting by Bosch, the men were suffering hardships inconceivable to Americans and other First Worlders. “New York commuters,” the image declared, “stop complaining about filthy trains and erratic service. You have no idea how lucky you are.”

These notorious photographs—of gold miners in Serro Pelada, Brazil—launched Salgado’s international career. The series became a chapter in Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age (1993), his first blockbuster, and helped to create the template for his signature style: startling, often vertiginous perspectives and a God-like concern for global socio-economic suffering. Every exhibition and book he has done since, from Migrations (2000) to Africa (2007), has been stamped with his fervid chiaroscuro and Christian iconography—W. Eugene Smith crossed with El Greco.

The latest of his years-long, world-wide projects is Genesis. Designed as a celebration of the planet’s diverse animal and plant life, and of indigenous people, it is also supposed to be—here I quote from ICP’s website—a platform to raise “public awareness about the pressing issues of environmental and climate change.”

Walking through the galleries, I felt chagrined (and puzzled) that I loathed the photographs so utterly when they were enlisted to do such good and when Salgado had obviously gone to so much trouble to make them. Was I being unfair? Or did the elaborate production of the show, with its interlocking book and documentary film, and ready-to-ship wall units (ICP is only one stop on its world tour) defeat the avowed intentions of the project, leaving the viewer no room to do anything but surrender to the majesty of Salgado?

His wife Lélia has clearly aided and abetted in this self-aggrandizement masquerading as selflessness. An enormous plaque here lists her as curator and designer followed by a list of editing and production assistants. This is more her show than ICP’s.

The two floors follow the table of contents in the companion tome. The work is divided roughly by continent—“Planet South” (Antartica and other southern polar islands), “Africa,” “Northern Spaces” (the Arctic and northern polar islands), “Amazonia and Pantanal,” with “Sanctuary” mixing images taken in an array of climates and time zones, from the Galapagos to New Guinea.

The digital prints are scrumptious, of course, but also interchangeable. Nor are they of places we haven’t visited many times before in photographs and films. It’s not as if National Geographic, the BBC, and PBS haven’t routinely brought back spectacular images of icebergs and rain forests, musk oxen and sea lions, exotic birds and plant species, every month into our homes since the 1960s.

What’s supposed to be distinctive in Genesis is the author. The title says it all. We’ve already had “Salgado on the Workers of the World”; now we have “Salgado on Nature.” And he has top billing! How, I found myself wondering, does the head of a photojournalist grow so swollen that it now appears larger than every worthy cause it takes up, including Earth itself?

As in Edward Burtynsky’s photographs, the note of awe is hammered like a gong. There are no moments of human or natural imperfection in Genesis. Every tribesman from New Guinea or the Amazon is depicted as a noble savage, every young woman is as gracile as the school girls in the soft porn of David Hamilton and Jock Sturges. Salgado’s interest in them as individuals extends only so far as they serve his aesthetic ends. Bombastic and impersonal, his prints are in their propagandistic mission and flawlessness closer in spirit to Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia or The Last of the Nuba than I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Salgado would like to think.

Are there stunning images? Sure. The photo at the entrance to the show—of an iceberg where wind and water have whipped up frozen water into a fantastic shape like the squared off walls of a roofless house—cleverly merges themes of untamed nature and constructed human habitat. An overhead shot of a reindeer migration in the Arctic Circle shows the animals stretching in a ragged line to the horizon at the top of the frame while at the bottom a few sleighs slog across the ice behind the herd. (It’s one of the few instances where Salgado suggests that living close to nature may not always be paradise.)

Fame has been helpful for Salgado the citizen but deadly for Salgado the artist. He and his wife can now afford to own a nature sanctuary on his family farm southeast of Brasilia. He has seen more of the world than perhaps any of his peers and can articulate its troubles with unmatched authority.

But he is now as big a name as anyone or anything he photographs. Instead of numberless Brazilian miners seen as if they were ants, we now have numberless birds and mammals seen as if they were ants. I’m not sure that’s progress. After spending fewer than 45 minutes in Genesis, I was looking for the Exodus.

Collector’s POV: Sebastião Salgado is represented by Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, CA (here). His prints are routinely available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging from a few thousand dollars (later prints, in large editions) all the way up to nearly $70000.

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Read more about: Sebastião Salgado, International Center of Photography, Taschen

One comment

  1. The Great Leap Sideways /

    Thanks for this piece Richard and Loring. It chimes with some thoughts I’ve had for quite some time.

    I have often had the some trouble with Salgado that I have with Cartier-Bresson, which is that I think their perfection is an imperfect measure of the complexity of the world, and thus their work resolves too neatly things that in essence are disjunctive and contradictory.

    Papageorge talked about Cartier-Bresson’s history as a game hunter influencing his predatory style of picture-making, and I think Geoff Dyer tagged him for always being in search of the iconic (a kind of taxidermist’s approach). I tend to think Salgado works in a similarly iconic/iconographic way.

    Beauty is not, for me, a problem or a problematic instinct in making an artistic record of the world. But I think that where that depiction is concerned primarily with its own formal perfection, one can lapse into correcting the world into an inaccurate kind of harmony.

    I love Greg Halpern’s work, for instance, for its embrace of imperfection and inaccuracy, or Vanessa Winship’s for her sensitivity to how things are essentially unstable and changing. What troubles me with the iconic approach is the sense of false resolution it implies, and the way it stills contradiction into false unities.

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