I’ve written about Sebastiao Salgado before. (Here.) In that article, I lauded him for his “impeccable sense of timing and attention to detail.” Well, he’s currently got an exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum in which almost every single photograph – and there are over two hundred on display – shows off these qualities in abundance.
The exhibition is titled Genesis, and aims to document natural environments across the globe in their current glorious, yet precarious, state. Over a period of eight years, Salgado has photographed human, animal and landscape subjects everywhere from Siberia to Patagonia, and it all looks utterly gorgeous. Gorgeous with a point. “My love letter to the planet”, Salgado calls Genesis. The political message of his work is never far from your attention. At the exhibition’s exit, a sign exhorts visitors to consider the delicate condition of the planet and to encourage its conservation. And the message in the work itself is barely less obvious. Salgado presents a pristine monochrome planet with an overwhelming sense that due to human activity, it will never be the same again.
Many of Salgado’s more breathtaking images are those produced from the air. A good deal of his work was photographed from a balloon, allowing him to pass noiselessly over his subjects, creating minimal disturbance. So his images of seabirds, penguins and buffalo, at ease and undisturbed, are as impressive for their documentary value as they are for their artistic value.
The documentary aspect of the exhibition is the dominant focal point. There are over two hundred photographs, each treated as a standalone document with the same meticulous attention to detail, each commanding attention. The artistic strength of Salgado’s work, though, is not to be underestimated. As Laura Cumming pointed out in this review for The Guardian, Salgado’s choice of monochrome helps brings the best out of everything in his shots. “Nothing can have absolute or accidental priority in monochrome, nothing can leap out simply by virtue of its colour.” This is a well-observed point. Among Salgado’s major strengths are his understanding of texture, and the ways in which he uses natural light to numerous advantages. These elements really stand out in his work. Monochrome is ideally suited to it. Everything complements everything else.
The political message is a little mawkish and grating at times. “I just want people to feel closer to our planet. We are all so out of touch. We don’t feel part of the planet any more, so we must turn back the clock to come closer to nature”, Salgado says, and the exhibition is explicitly supportive of this statement. It means that a lot of the work feels a little obvious, missing a sense of depth beyond the instruction to love our planet. But for all that, it is beautifully shot. Which makes it as unmissable as any other photographer’s work.
With the exhibition on until September, I’d wholly recommend it.