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Genesis by Sebastião Salgado

April 16th, 2013 No Comments

The Natural History Museum of England is hosting an exhibit, Genesis, of photographs by Sebastião Salgado.  One doesn’t have to attend the exhibition to conclude that the images are breathtaking – the slideshow is proof enough.

This exhibition is about remote peoples and remote places; Salgado has tried to bring ‘The Ends of the Earth’ to an exhibition hall.

The very first photograph that greets us is one that would draw gasps of disbelief from most viewers: the two tribal women wearing lip plates are grotesquely deformed by our standards (though likely beautiful by their own).  A stark, businesslike, front-on portrait in flat light suffices because Salgado’s subject-matter is itself so compelling.

In contrast, the very last photograph in the slideshow of a village shaman could not be more different in execution.  It is far removed from that of the two women in terms of lighting, composition, crop, angle of elevation, the tonal definition, and even the impression of movement.  Vastly different from the other portrait!

This distinction indicates the choices Salgado has made so as to maximize the effect of his images; to impart the atmosphere of a particular place: while location-specific dust and mist are clearly visible in some photographs; you can almost hear the swoosh of the water and the warbling of the dozens of birds in the photographs of the whale’s tail and the albatross colony.  As for the Firefighter on page 2 of the exhibition booklet, feel that heat!

That booklet contains a short but heartfelt interview with Salgado in which he reflects on the growing ‘disconnect’ between Humankind and the Planet it inhabits, and what drove him to embark upon his epic photographic journey.

A niggle: why is each and every photograph in black-and-white?  No doubt many, say even most, of the images are such that they lend themselves to B&W – here’s a prime example.  What, though, about the mountain gorilla and the desert firefighter?  The elimination of the colours Mother Nature herself lent to the primate and his habitat, and of the fiery towers and explosions, weakens the expressive power of the images.

On the other hand some images are probably enhanced by the absence of colour: here is a Nature-made Fantasy-Scape.  The drama inherent in this image by way of the fantastical shape of the iceberg and the glowering, moody sky is heightened by the image being in highly tonal B&W.


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