To say that I was overwhelmed after seeing Sebastiao Salgado’s ‘Genesis’ exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London is to say nothing. I was simply blown away. My first encounter with Salgado’s work took place at the Somerset House in London, which showed some of Salgado’s Brazilian landscapes and Polka Galerie in Paris where his African photographs were shown. It was absolutely clear that we are dealing with a great master. To be able to depict the beauty of our planet, the diversity of its people and the humanitarian issues that the planet faces with such visual strength and style is a sign of a true genious.
Finally, I was able to acquire ‘Genesis’, the incredible book published by Taschen as a permanent reference and a source of inspiration. Most incredible are the images made in Papua New Guinea and Brazilian Amazon forests. The very different First Nation cultures, which some people might call primitive, were actually able to survive until the present day, which according to Jared Diamond is a sign of sustainability awareness and a strong contact with nature. Diamond’s book, ‘Collapse’ clearly shows so many civilizations that collapsed because there were not able to manage the limited resources they had in a sustainable manner. Such civilizations included that of the Easter Island for example. The fact that civilizations of Brazilian Amazon survived is a clear sign of success and we must learn from them in their appreciation of natural systems, birds and animals, mountains and forests, rivers and lakes.
Salgado is deliberately presenting all his images in black and white, which is now defining his signature style, although he shoots more and more with digital cameras. This unity of style is important to appreciate the meaning of Salgado’s work, where the subject matter, composition, the mise-en-scene become central elements with colour considered distracting and unimportant. To shoot in black and white like Salgado does, it is necessary to develop a special vision focusing on the tonal aspects and seeing more the graphic elements of the composition rather than the colour of the image.
Salgado emigrated from Brazil with his young wife when he was very young and started photography using a 35mm camera. Abandoning what could have been a promising career as an economist with the International Coffee Organization after earning his PhD in Paris, Sagado decided to devote himself to photography. Making Paris his home, he continued being involved in humanitarian and environmental projects using the language of photography fully supported by his wife. His first large exhibition of photography focused on Africa has been organized by the French religious organization.
Salgado was able to return to Brazil many years later and created wide angle landscapes singing a tribute to his country. A few days ago Sebastiao Salgado was awarded a membership of the French Academy of Fine Arts for his contribution to the art of photography.
Salgado’s ‘Genesis’ is still available but there are fewer copies left: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sebasti%C3%A3o-Salgado-GENESIS-Sebastiao/dp/3836538725
Sebastiao Salgado (2013) Genesis, Taschen
Jared Diamond (2011) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin