Photographs, words and sounds

Genesis review


There are not many books of photographs that are truly important in a larger, social context, but I think that Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis is one such book. Aesthetically, philosophically, and even technically, this is not a perfect book, but, so far, it is this century’s most important collection of photographs.

Genesis is a monumental book in more ways than one. Even the mass-market edition is a large, heavy tome of 520 pages of the highest possible quality. Just touching and turning those 9.6 x 14 inch pages is a pleasure and, incidentally, the reason why  e-books have a long way to go before they come close to matching the experience. The weight, richness and texture of the paper and stunning reproduction of tones are unparalleled. The art editions Taschen has produced are massive two tomes of over 700 18.4 x 27.6 inch pages with a stand, a box, a captions booklet and a silver print all together priced at exclusive $10,000. The only thing that is more impressive than the price is the weight of the entire package – 59 kilograms or 130lb.

There is a reason for this lavish presentation. Salgado, in the introduction to the book, says Genesis body of work is “a visual ode to the majesty and fragility of Earth… [his] homage to the grandeur of nature.” He also, right from the start, declares that this is not a piece of journalism or anthropological research, but rather a romantic endeavour. Philosophically, therein lies a problem. It IS a very romantic view of our planet, but maybe romance is exactly what we need. The larger problem is an occasionally, well, for a lack of better word, colonial representation of some of the Salgado’s human subjects. This is especially evident in some of the photographs from the Patel and in the Sanctuaries chapter. There are a few photographs in those chapters that I find questionable. And while I am dealing with the objections to this book let me say a word about the aesthetics. The photographs are masterful and beautiful, but there are instances where the contrast is cranked up just too much – to the point of turning a photograph into kitsch. This, in some cases at least, maybe be the result of the switch between film and digital technology Salgado made sometime during the project. It is usually quite difficult to tell film and well processed black and white digital photographs apart, but at this size and presented side by side, there are obvious differences. The tonal range of the film is by far wider and more subtle. The opening photograph of the Planet South chapter of an iceberg moving on the Weddell Sea is butter smooth – it’s everything film can be. However, all of these aesthetic, representational and philosophical objections are really nitpicking. This is, after all, Salgado’s book so he gets to set the rules, and he is clearly in top form.


Before I gush over the photographs, there is one more thing I want to address. Salgado has very publicly and openly acknowledged the support Genesis project has received from the Brazilian mining giant Vale. He has also been very publicly criticized for accepting the corporate sponsorship from a company with a horrendous impact on the environments throughout the world. All I can say about that is that Salgado did not go to Vale first. He went to those magazines and publishers who in the past supported long form documentary work and now, with some notable exceptions such as Rolling Stone magazine, spend majority of their funds buying agent-supplied celebrity photos. That is not Salgado’s fault. The media, public and private, have completely abdicated any responsibility they ever felt for informing the public about the issues of actual real importance and that is the real problem here.


So – the photographs. They are epic. Truly biblical and if I would compare them to anything, it’s not to another photograph, but to Gustave Doré engravings. There is the same sense of awe and the magical light. These photographs are also unmistakably Salgado. The sheer multitude of individual animals is almost overwhelming. The mass of penguins in the Antarctica is in its magnitude, feel and even composition similar to some of the photographs from Salgado’s previous work. When Salgado focuses his lens on individual animals, the results are stunning, personalities emerge and there is a sense that what you’re looking at is actually portraiture and not wildlife photography. Oddly enough, with some notable exception such as the old San man leaning on his walking stick in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert on page 239 and a fascinating photograph of a mudman performer from Papua New Guinea on page 205, Salgado seemed to struggle with capturing his human subjects with the same clarity. In fact, it is when he photographs humans that the whole notion of ‘the romantic’ approach is pushed too far.


What works, and works amazingly, are the sweeping vistas of some of the most remarkable landscapes on the planet. The photographs Salgado made in the Arctic and Antarctica are probably the most poetic and the most impressive. These are the landscapes and lifestyles disappearing rapidly under the pressures of climate change.


If visual ode to the planet, a love letter of sorts, is what Salgado wanted to create, he has succeeded. That is why his book is beautiful, but it is not why it’s important. Its importance is that Salgado has presented us with a visual record of Earth that we don’t often see – a majestic place that is a home to all of us. And now that this book is in front of us, we have to ask ourselves: “Is all this worth rethinking the path we are on?” Now, because Salgado has made this book, we have to make a choice.



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