The word ‘epic’ stands out in the advertising material for Sebastiao Salgado’s latest project – Genesis, now showing at the Natural History Museum in London. However, this surely has more to do with the vast tracts of the worlds surface through which Salgado flew, drove, floated, tramped and climbed than a more pressing engagement with hidden truths discovered on his eight year quest.
That is not to say there aren’t astonishingly beautiful images here which startle with their characteristic use of dramatic, reverential light and majestic composition. This is a photographer at the height of his powers, using new – to him – technology (Salgado eschewed film in favour of digital capture for the first time) to produce highly detailed and sumptuous prints.
The problem is that these pictures only add to a sense that nature is something wholly apart from ourselves. In other words, that nature and the indigenous people that live in it – are something to be visited, to be wondered at – gorped at even – until our desires are met and we return, satiated, to the modern world with all its complications and hypocricies.
In his essay, Sebastiao Salgado and Fine Art Photojournalism , Julian Stallabrass brings up an interesting point about the indigenous people depicted in his book – Other Americas. He highlights the successful way in which Salgado has drawn attention to the communities which have survived and thrived away from the ravages of modern existence. This critique can be applied to Genesis, where some of the most interesting single images depict specific social groups with strong bonds to each other and their natural environment. He nevertheless states that ‘it is an unavoidable strength and weakness of such pictures that they exhibit something real but unaided can say little about it, except that it exists; the pictures reify, display, and sell back to their viewers the husk of what they have abandoned.’
After Salgado’s previous project – Workers – Genesis seems to be more colonial travelog than serious photojournalism. On this point, one cannot help but be drawn back to Salgado’s bruising portrayal of Gold miners in Brazil enduring monumental hardships to fulfill the West’s desire for natural resources.
Ultimately, with this exhibition, Salgado’s reputation will grow as a new audience engages with his work. In his back catalogue, Salgado has tackled big issues with a style which has ingratiated himself with galleries and the art market. Much of the hidden rhetoric in his latest work will emerge, and the historical significance of many of the pictures will only increase as indigenous populations are pressured to enter modern life to a greater or lesser extent. Furthermore, it was heartwarming to read at the end of the exhibition about the farmland which he has replanted in his native Brazil as his way of contributing to the health of the planet.
A shame, then, that there were no pictures of this – probably aesthetically bland – piece of land in his finished work. In Salgado’s unique vision, his holy light only illuminates the beauty of the surface of things.