Sebastião Salgado: to the ends of the earth

Sebastião Salgado’s latest and most monumental project is at last open for viewing. After extensive trailing over the years of its preparation, the finished whole is on show at London’s Natural History Museum. It consists of more than 200 photographs and is the result of nearly 10 years’ work, a vision so large as to be all-encompassing. The Genesis project is, as Salgado puts it, “my love letter to the planet”, and it compels respect.

Salgado’s peculiar mannerism remains intact: he uses black-and-white with a grain that emphasises modulations of tone, even at the expense of perfect sharpness. When he was photographing troubles, as he did for many years, this beautiful style was a constant contrast to the scenes he described. But Genesis contains no horrors: it is an attempt to photograph a prelapsarian idyll, and the style occasionally tends to the mawkish.

Salgado’s many gifts are intact too – his vast compassion and intelligence, his unyielding curiosity. He seeks not only to see but to understand through seeing. Salgado remains a political photographer – to the extent that he believes that to see clearly is to begin to act. These, like Ansel Adams’ photographs from 75 years ago, are campaign pictures of wilderness areas that need protecting.

The labours of Genesis were partly the usual ones of any giant project: building teams, gaining permissions and raising funds. Salgado then had to make arduous trips to document parts of the world undamaged by humans. He believes we can no longer afford to ignore the obvious damage we cause and that we have much to learn not only from those few remaining humans who live in close harmony with nature, but from other species that cause little harm. About half the world, he reckons, remains as it was before man interfered. But that half is where man finds it hardest to reach.

Sebastião Salgado in 2007

So Salgado talks of walking 800km to get to the part of northern Ethiopia he wanted to see, because that’s how far away the roads ran out. In Alaska, his plane dropped him and came back five days later, leaving him beyond help in between. When he photographed the Nenets people of Siberia he walked with them for 47 days, a freezing march across the Arctic Circle. When his fancy European weatherproof clothes failed, he borrowed from the Nenets clothes made of reindeer, like almost everything in their economy. His system has been a kind of photographic Method acting: the pictures are swollen with the effort of making them. There have been many heroic photographic enterprises and Genesis is now one of them.

But heroism is not enough. Salgado was an economist before he took up his camera. His previous projects have all contained hard arguments as well as strong emotions, and Genesis is at its core a sober economist’s stocktaking of what’s left. In his native Brazil, Salgado’s Instituto Terra has planted millions of trees to replace the biodiversity that had been lost when it was his parents’ monocultural farm. A rational scientific discourse underpins the project, as it should underpin all discussions on the environment.

But Genesis is not a scientific collection of pictures. It is not even romantic in any complete sense. The only word I can fit to it is “awestruck”. Salgado has gone around the world like a kid shouting, “Wow! Will you take a look at that!” So here they all are: the Angel Falls and the Victoria Falls, an elephant charging straight at the photographer, the Grand Canyon, rare birds catching fish, people who live in tree houses, icebergs ...

The Dinkas of southern Sudan (2006)

The best pictures are miraculous. Salgado finds patterns everywhere and renders them in his exquisite tonalities. He finds behaviours (human and animal) that are telling in themselves. But it’s also too much. There is no solid rationale to the selection, neither of places visited, nor of pictures to include once the visit has been made. It is striking that many of the most moving pictures, in spite of the arduousness of Salgado’s trips on the ground, are, in fact, taken from the air.

For all the quite miraculous individual photographs, a flavour of sentimentality has invaded Genesis. There is no doubt this is one of the great photographic projects but it still suffers from bloat. For that reason, it is not its creator’s greatest work.

Take the various pictures of whale flukes high in the air. Eco-tourism enables many thousands of people a year to see whales at close quarters. The tourists all have cameras and use them with a vengeance. Salgado, with all his talent, and with his incredible eye, may well have seen his whales in more difficult circumstances than most but the pictures are no different. This brings a heavy National Geographic feel to much of Genesis, showing nature’s beauty for its own sake.

Salgado has taken in Genesis the benevolent tone of that other great universal photographic exhibition, The Family of Man, curated by Edward Steichen in the 1950s, and that’s a step away from his own fulminating pictures of the past. This great photographer has over-reached himself in thinking that his whale flukes are different or better than what we know already.

The world is incredible, and at grave risk. Salgado feels that we need to be reminded of that, at any cost, again and again. Much of Genesis makes that point with genius. But Salgado could have shrunk the project, the book, and the exhibition by a third to make the same point with sharpness too.

‘Sebastião Salgado: Genesis’, Natural History Museum, London, until September 8, then touring worldwide,

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