Sebastiao Salgado’s work evokes opinions ranging from deification to dislike verging on hate. This, I suppose, is an accomplishment, because whatever he does, he clearly works with distinctiveness. ‘Workers‘, ‘An Uncertain Grace‘ and various other bodies of work are what we know him for, but Genesis – an attempt to photography the last remaining untouched wildernesses, and peoples, before they disappear – is quite different. Before giving my opinion on the work, I will refer to comments by former Magnum photographer, Luc Delahaye. The French photographer left Magnum because he felt the agency was being constrained by its history and thus preventing him from being able to fully jump into ‘art’, where he believed the future lay. In an interview with The Guardian, he appears to have made the following comment:
“He [Salgado] is the devil for me…. because he is a cliché-maker. He is producing what everyone has in mind.” “[Nevertheless Salgado] is a genius”.
I think I am right there with Delahaye in terms of Salgado being a genius and I do understand where he is coming from with regard to the aesthetic cliche, but what this means all depends on what photography is to the individual. Do I find Salgado’s work mysterious and deep? No. Do I find it rewarding, beautiful and sensitive? Yes and I am happy to value it on its merits. Salgado is without question an master of composition and what’s interesting for me in Genesis is how the man has approached largely non-human subjects. To me, its clear that his recognisable fingerprint is there, although it is perhaps less in evidence due to the subject matter.
So what about the book itself? Well, its a very large portrait/vertical format book (24.9 x 4.4 x 35.4 cm) that is priced quite well for what you get (amazon.com). It seems well made, it is very nicely printed and there is a LOT of material inside. Images have excellent contrast, with rich blacks and good highlights, which probably shows through in these photos of the pages. It also contains a comprehensive and separate booklet giving lots of information on the individual images/plates. This can be stowed inside the book to protect it and leafed through in conjunction with the book and it a hugely valuable addition to a book like this.
You already know what I am going to complain about, don’t you? Yes, its the endless bloody double-page spreads. These force you to open the book out as flat as possible, so the image isn’t distorted and this does the spine no good at all. It also forces you to gain distance from the book, because the images are a very respectable size – probably in the region of 16″ x 12″ or something in that region. I would have far preferred a square format book, with higher resolution images at a smaller size and suspect most people would. The large size and lack of comfort looking at the images on your lap (its too close), diminishes the intimacy that could have been achieved. What I will say is that the images to have a lot of detail in, in many cases and this requires either a large printed image, or exceptional resolution. I’m guessing the former was cheaper and easier than the latter.
While Genesis is dominated by double page spreads, they are interspersed with other formats. There is a smattering of single page images and a half dozen or so pull out sections with multiple smaller images. While these help break up the flow (in a good way) some left me a little cold. The images are in some cases not of the same quality. I do like the design aspect, however and I am glad they are there simply because they diversify the viewing experience.
To me, this book is about a great deal more than photographs and I think this is what Luc Delahaye is perhaps missing with Salgado as a whole. Delahaye is perhaps seeing photography as a pure, artistic and intellectual pursuit (now). I think Salgado would see his photographs being secondary to the subjects. His images are intended to stir up a protective, admiring passion for the things depicted; that his images will ultimately be a catalyst for achieving his environmental goals. I think he succeeds remarkably well and would ask this: how can such imagery be a cliche if the actual observation of the same subject matter in the flesh would result in the same appreciation and wonder? I don’t think it can be. Perhaps Salgado has found an area of photography where his emotional approach and style perfectly suit the objective and where he cannot be criticised for beautifying that which is already, unquestionably beautiful. Such criticism had more mileage when he was photographing drought and famine in Sahel, for instance.
It reportedly took a budget of $7-8 million to shoot Genesis and its a feat of determination that he admits he will never be able to undertake again, due to advancing years. Few other photographers will come close either, primarily because Salgado has access to staggering ‘pulling power’ within the photography world. On that subject, let’s remember that this is a product of his great success as an image maker, that itself is a product of his absolute determination and passion as a human being. Like Cartier-Bresson, he was born into a privileged life but has used that freedom wisely and has sought to help others. One cannot help but admire the man that has worked so hard to fight for the wellbeing of others, when he had no need to fight for anything at all.
If you weren’t able to move beyond the somewhat annoying double page spreads before, I hope you are now. The images speak for themselves and the format issue has long since slipped into irrelevance for me. I am left only with inspiration and that can be yours for the very reasonable price of $45.
Except for some more images….