Sebastião Salgado on GENESIS
It's a sweeping view of 34 locations, including Africa, the Amazon and the frigid North.
— Heather Mallick
Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, March-April 2011. It looks like the setting of a Sinclair Ross novel about a Saskatchewan farmer whose horse died early that winter but that's a manmade misery. This is northern Siberia where the Nenet indigenous people live, all 42,000 of them. They settle in the winter and in the summer head north to the Arctic with their reindeer herds, where the animals can dig for food beneath the tundra. The Arctic has been kinder to the Nenets than communism, the oil and gas industry and climate change. In this photograph, the Nenets are camped, repairing sledges and the reindeer skins that form their tents. Again, Salgado is photographing angles, the wind blowing the entire photograph past the viewer to the lower right. The sky is empty and there is minimal movement on land. The only thing that fights the wind is smoke from the tent being blown slightly less forcefully than the snow. Objects are placed on the flat ground, held only by gravity. The photograph is an empty plate dotted with meat and bones, and that includes the bundled-up humans. Blink and they'd all be blown away.
West Papua, Indonesia, 2010. West Papua is an Indonesian province, separate from the independent Papua New Guinea on the eastern side of the island north of Australia. The Yali people live in the Jayawijaya mountain range, in terrain so rugged that it kept outsiders away until Christian missionaries arrived in the 1970s. These women of the Yali tribe are facing what looks like a river valley but is actually a branching tree, bare amid intense thick vegetation. Salgado shows the women wearing bags woven from orchid fibres. They wear them at all times, much as Western women wear the cross-body purses that look irksome but make it possible to ride bikes without complication. The tree heads off in several directions seeking sun, but the bags of netting-in which the women collect sweet potatoes, insects, bananas and leaves-show something we don't expect to see in a jungle: perfect stripes. We think of symmetry as a Western construct but it is easily achieved.
Madagascar, Nov-Dec 2010. Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean off Africa's southern coast, is the fourth-largest island in the world and has a reputation for being, shall we say, self-contained. This may be why Hitler is said to have considered "exiling" the European Jews here but that sounds suspiciously benign. Here, fancifully, is a photo of the island of Madagascar writ small. This tiny plot resembles a mushroom, or an upside down shot of the icebergs Salgado showed us previously, looming out of shallow friendly water for no reason in particular. It is a classic Salgado photograph in its eccentricity. Look closely and you'll see the famous baobab tree (Adansonia rubrostipa). Trees aren't supposed to look like carrots! Baobabs do. Knowing that 90% of Madagascar's forests have been destroyed by fires for humans gives the photo a mournful air, contrary to Salgado's romantic dream. It's as if the island were helpless, isolating itself from its destroyers. It won't work.
The world does love a penguin. Here, chinstrap penguins, or Pygoceles Antarctica, use what humans would call a short-takeoff-and-landing runway into the black ocean slurping up beside them. The iceberg lies between Zavodovski and Visokoi islands, discovered nearly 200 years ago by Russian explorers. If the Genesis project is about earth, air, water and fire, this photo is all about their textures. Below is the foaming swirling almost oily-looking water. The ice is so smooth that its slopes almost look smoky from the water drops trembling in the air. And beside it is a towering lump of what may be ice or rock. It looks like a soft cheese or spackle that has been slapped and smacked by a flat knife. And the fourth texture, air, is simply horizontal lines of streaking cloud, the only straight lines in the photo. Chinstrap penguins have attractive black bands under their jawline. They're common, they're populous and one of the few creatures tough enough to live here. They eat krill because that's all there is.
Siberut Island, West Sumatra, Indonesia, March-April 2008. Here's a perfect example of Salgado's talent for framing and texture, as well as a touch of what is known in photography as "the decisive moment," although you could hardly call this a photo full of movement. The photograph is packed with vegetation. It's an onslaught of green although the genius of black and white photograph is how it slaps you with contrast, which works even better. Colour does the work for you. Salgado is after bigger things. Most photographers trying to show a human being dwarfed by huge beauty would place the man on the left on the ground. Here, he is perhaps 40 metres up the tree trunk seeking durian, that famous reeking fruit. The Mentawi clan eat durian and sell it for machetes and tobacco. Even floating high above the ground, this man in a treebark loincloth is still rendered small by foliage on a gigantic scale. Vines, fronds, branches and thick mottled trunks make this photo a candidate for a jigsaw puzzle that would bring on a migraine.
Anavilhanas, Rio Negro, Brazil, May 2009. This is the photograph Salgado chose to close Genesis (the book) with. It is a vision of utter flatness, as flat as Siberia but the landscape that is utterly different. It is a welcoming vista, the 350 forested islands of the archipelago looking almost like the English landscape-those clouds could be by the English painter Constable-but the hedgerows are long and curved and sleepy. Or is this a defeated dike, a Dutch failure to reclaim land? These islands are stretched like Silly Putty. These thousand square km of Amazonia were formed in the last Ice Age when sediment built up to form islands. As the seasons change, so do water levels, as much as 20 metres, which means the watery shapes sliding through the photo change frequently. Since the land isn't truly stationary, Salgado has framed the photo so that the clouds, fluffy and oddly pretty, sit like a hat on top of still flat water. The photograph leaves you at loose ends, as if it were taken almost randomly. But Salgado is never random. I am trying to find letters and faces in the pools. I see the outlines of dogs and snakes. Nothing is round. Lines stretch endlessly, slanting away from us to the upper right, then horizonally. This is landscape that could be quickly ruined by man by means of waterborne pollution, drought or rising water levels. It is a portrait of fragility, part of Salgado's great snapshot of a grand planet on the edge of ruin.
The Brooks Range, Alaska, June-July 2009. Salgado chose this photo for the dust jacket of Genesis, the book of the show, produced by the great art publisher Taschen. Why? It's the Ride of the Valkryies, it's the Hallelujah Chorus, it's the Jimi Hendrix's Little Wing of landscape photography. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stretches 300 km north to south in northeastern Alaska, including salt marshes, river deltas, barrier islands, lagoons, tundra, mountains, glaciers and valleys. It's a haven for migratory birds, caribou, bears, and seals and is barred to Palins shooting rifles from helicopters. This photograph was taken in the eastern Brooks Range, a huge stretch of mountains cut by river valleys and glaciers. The very words, "Brooks Range," are suggestive. The great James Dickey novel To the White Sea is about a tail gunner morphing into animal as he is parachuted into Japan in World War II and escapes north on foot. Muldrow was born on the Brooks Range, where humans don't fit, not at all. Salgado is showing us a deep cut into the planet that becomes a silver slice that forks at the bottom of the photograph. Like the icebergs earlier, there is a huge mass of mountain on the right sliding into streaked mounds on the left. The picture surges with energy, a shaft of light beaming down from the heavens so brazenly that it would embarrass Led Zeppelin. Is it a stairway up or down? Salgado isn't mourning what we've done to the planet, he is celebrating what we haven't damaged. This is glorious. This is Genesis, this is "an ode to the majesty and fragility of earth." It is indeed a vision of what Salgado himself calls his dream. This is the sublime, a vision that the Romantics fed on in the late 18th century, changing our view of Nature. Before, it was a nice view. Then it became a reason to live. It's a symphony of a photography and I'll leave you to stare at it some more.
Kalahari Desert, Botswana, January 2008. Salgado is arguably most famous not for his landscapes but for his photographs of people in those landscapes. In his earlier Migrations, he showed humanity seeking escape and prosperity and in Workers, our antlike struggle to survive. And here, we have what in other hands might be a cliché, our quest for fire. It's more than that. The San people of Botswana live in what looks like utter aridity. Further, they have been driven off their land and resettled. But unusually, Salgado has moved in close and cropped the photo. We vaguely see bare branches and flatness behind these men twirling a stick of trumpet-thorn against a piece of western rhigozum hardwood. (The women are out gathering.) It's a tiny intimate scene, the thorn held by one man, the rhigozum by another while other men join the huddle. It takes two, plus companions. The photograph is all about angles, thin diagonal arms, legs bent double, every limb every which way. These figures radiate concentration. In the West, only bodybuilders have such intense muscling and popping tendons and sinews. Only surgeons and nurses working on a patient would show such concentration. It's a very Western scene. On the lower left is a big egg. I'll say no more. Salgado kept it in because he obviously liked the egg and it makes for nice portrait punctuation. But I have no insight into this huge speckled egg.
Antarctica, Jan-Feb 2005: In the Weddell Sea in January, Salgado found the perfect iceberg. As the Guardian wrote that year, "He was ecstatic. He had already taken thousands of photographs in Antarctica, but he considered this to be the first real one. "One picture I have. Now I only need 49." Consider the brilliant non-stop light, the Antarctic's gift to photographers. The iceberg is perfectly framed, the glittering flat sheen of the water beneath, the fast black clouds above. From the right approaches a medieval castle like the tower of a battleship. Or maybe it's Monte Cassino, done in ice. The jagged surface of the iceberg is caused by wind erosion and falling ice, but at sea level the smoothness tells a story. The iceberg once floated at other levels, and the ocean wore the hull smooth. Is this "a sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice" as Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in an opiated moment in 1797? It made Salgado's heart sing. Or is it simply terrifying? Is this photo about the tip or the iceberg or the implied greater mass below? Imagine what this astounding photo isn't showing you, the caverns beneath, "measureless to man."