This is my learning log for the OCA Ditigal Photographic Practice course

Monday, 1 July 2013

Study visit – Genesis Exhibition - Sebastiao Salgado

28 June 2013 – Natural History Museum, South Kensington
This is a massive exhibition of 200 monochrome prints from diverse parts of the world depicting landscapes wildlife and indigenous peoples.
Before we  attended this exhibition we were told that Salgado has his detractors. This is hardly surprising for such a well established and high profile photographer who produces works on a massive scale with total commitment to what he believes in. I browsed around his Amazonas images website, looked at the videos of him working with the Zo’e Indians in Brazil. I also read Ian Parker’s extensive article, ‘A Cold Light’ published in the New Yorker in 2005 at the start of the project. This was about Salgado’s journey to Antarctica in that year. Both gave some insight into his way of working and his commitment to this daunting undertaking.
I’ll quote from the Amazonas images website which summarises the Salgados’ (Sebastiao’s wife Lelia runs the agency in Paris) objective for the project:
“Genesis is an attempt to portray the beauty and the majesty of regions that are still in a pristine condition, areas where landscapes and wildlife are still unspoiled, places where human communities continue to live according to their ancient culture and traditions. Genesis is about seeing and marvelling, about understanding the necessity for the protection of all of this; and finally it is about inspiring action for this preservation.”
After spending only an hour looking at the images, I came away with the feeling that  there was too much to see in such a short  time. I found myself crying out for some colour by the end! Of all of the pictures, I found his work on indigenous peoples the most fascinating and interesting. Looking at the quote above, reading Jose’s post and the subsequent discussions and with a limited grasp of the language of visual culture, I can say that I was bowled over by the size of the project, impressed by the quality of the images in terms of lighting and composition and unsure if Salgado has fulfilled all of his own objectives.
Jose Navarro said  “Salgado seems to ignore the complexity of contemporary visual language. In today’s visual-led society, that’s more than just a little reckless”
I am left wondering if Salgado has missed a trick here ..”and finally it is about inspiring action for this preservation.” If he was really serious about inspiring the young into action (it is them who will need to act with us, both now and for the future), perhaps he should have moved away from the traditional monochrome photojournalistic style and made more use of colour, especially in photographing animals and birds. I’m afraid to admit that I glossed over most of the wildlife photography in the exhibition for this reason. I’ve seen it done better and with more impact elsewhere. Monochrome still has a place but in a world where colour images are used for virtually all visual communication on a daily basis, Salgado’s message in in danger of being lost.
At the discussion after the exhibition and the talk by Parvati Nair (which gave some background on the Salgados the Amazonas Agency and their “Green” credentials) Several point were raised.
  • I think the majority of students remarked on the post capture digital processing that had been applied to many of the images. The predominant feeling was that some of this was too obvious and detracted from their purity. From reading, and Parvati Nair’s talk, my understanding is that during the course of the project, Salgado changed from film to digital capture. Certainly, in the 2005 article, Hawkins makes reference to Salgado using film. During the discussion, tutor Robert Enoch demonstrated how extremes of contrast can be dealt with in Photoshop, giving an insight into the techniques that Salgado may have used.
  • The discussion then focussed on the depictions of some of the indigenous women. Some students felt that these images objectified the women and were included as titillation. There was a feeling that Salgado should have thought more carefully or taken local advice before including these images, especially in view of the predominant position of recent child sex abuse cases in the national press recently. Without the detailed knowledge of how these images were made (lighting, cropping, deliberate posing etc.) and having watched the video on Amazonas of Salgado working with the Zo’e  people, I think we have to not look at these through European eyes. I like would think that they are depictions of the female form, drawing the comparison between their vulnerability and innocence, and that of the people, threatened as they are, by global culture. Interestingly, this topic came up again at the Thames Valley Group Study day when discussing Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” in particular the depiction of women. See separate post.
One the whole, a worthwhile visit to a good exhibition. My admiration of Salgado remains strong and this discussion of his work has reinforced the maxim that you can never please all of the people, all of the time.

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