On Meeting Sebastiao Salgado


Only a novelist — and a South American novelist at that — could know what to make of how, precisely, it came to be that Sebastiao Salgado was able to break free from the life of a photojournalist to commence his exploration, in the 1980s, of Workers, his epic documentation of laborers around the world.

It all began in Washington, where he has been for the past two days, presenting his forthcoming Genesis — last night at NatGeo, and tonight at the Brazilian Embassy.  Providence placed him, 32 years ago, just outside the Washington Hilton  at the very moment Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, and it was Salgado who captured the images that soon were on the front pages of newspapers worldwide.  Capturing the near killing of the president who led America’s capitalist resurgence left Salgado — who has become the most renowned photographer of our age — in a financial position to document capitalism’s effects on the workers of the world, the army of miners entering the pits, the farmers struggling to fuel the caffeinated West.  Of all the photographers in Washington that day, it was the former economist from Brazil who was able to, well, capitalize on the moment, in service of one of the most ambitious artistic projects of the epoch. What would Garcia Marquez do with those facts, such magical realism?

And then came Migrations, which sought to document how the planet was trod by those pulled to opportunity, or pushed from disaster, or maybe it’s the other way around; the magnetism of cities depopulating the countryside, refugees from war-torn Africa, from famine, from genocide.  And as a one-time exile from Brazil, he had a special eye for those who had to leave their homelands because they were ripped apart.

And now he is back, after an eight-year exploration of that portion of the planet that has not been despoiled by man, and the photos, of course, are nothing less than magnificent.  If Salgado could render starvation in the Sahel in a photograph that somehow, despite it all, contains the beauty that comes from human dignity, imagine what he can do capturing the last pristine places on Earth.

You’ll know soon enough; Genesis will be the most important photographic event of the year, as it launches in April with multiple museum shows on different continents, as two books are published by Taschen, as Salgado’s son and Wim Wenders release a documentary on the making of this, his greatest work.  Get ready.

On the eve of World War II, Cartier-Bresson complained of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, “The world is falling to pieces and Adams and Weston are taking pictures of rocks.”  Genesis transforms Salgado into a landscape photographer, every bit as much as he was a humanist documentarian, and before that, a photojournalist.  But now as the world is literally falling to pieces — even the rocks are falling to pieces, now that so much of the world is being drilled and mined, with habitat shrinking faster than the glaciers — Salgado has spent eight years capturing it, the glaciers and mountains, the tribes and the caribou.  And in so doing he has produced the most breathtaking hymn to the planet.

From capturing the dignity of people who refuse to be degraded by their conditions, he’s spent his seventh decade capturing the dignity of the planet that still has beauty preserved, in pockets here and there.  Only someone with the stamina of Salgado, and an ability to charter the planes and hire the pack animals, can get to the ends of the Earth, capturing them before they’re gone.

What we learned tonight in meeting him was a) his eyes twinkle, b) he is as warm and patient as only a humanist photographer can be, c) he shrugs off the physical discomfort he had to have gone through, all alone in Antarctica or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or with the the native peoples in tundra and rainforest, and d) most surprisingly, he’s actually optimistic about the planet.  He described the genesis of Genesis as coming out of the bleakness of photographing the Balkans for Migrations, when he was depressed about the condition of the planet.

But after he and Lelia Wanick — his wife and collaborator who run the Amazonas photo agency, which syndicates his work — began their project to reforest the section of Brazil in which he was raised, ultimately planting two million trees, he began to be hopeful once again.  And he focused on the approximately 50 percent of the planet — from Antarctica to the Arctic, from the deserts to the jungles — that has not been paved over.  And from that he began what may be his final extended project.

Each individual photograph is gorgeous, but the power of the collection is unlike any photographic project you will have ever seen.  If the word “stunning” has meaning, this is when to use it.  The 140 images he showed tonight — a portion of the 500 we will get to see in April — is an aria to the beauty of the planet still remaining.

Sebastiao Salgado is a great photographer because he can frame and illuminate images with an aesthetic sensibility unlike anyone today.

He is a great artist because of his conceptual ambition — not for him the limitation of photographing a gang in New York City, or people at a zoo, or the denizens of the street.  Salgado is intent on capturing the workers of the world.  All of them.  And all the migrations of people across continents and seas.  And now Genesis, for God’s sake.

He is a great man because of his humanism, which is not rare among photographers, though as with his work, Salgado is in a league of his own.

4 Responses to “On Meeting Sebastiao Salgado”

  1. Do you know if Genesis coming to DC? I can only find dates for the show at MFA, boston.

  2. johnbuckley100 Says:

    I didn’t know about the Museum of Fine Arts, and so that would be the only US museum show I know about. Fingers crossed there are more.

  3. […] for an early preview of what to expect from “Genesis,” we refer you back to this piece we posted in January, after meeting Salgado at the Brazilian Embassy in […]

  4. […] Melville called “snivelization.”  A few months back,through Peter’s generosity, we were able to meet Salgado when he came to Washington to show more of what would be included in the massive museum […]

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