It’s fitting that Sebastiao Salgado’s most recent monumental project be shown at The Natural History Museum as it is both as sublime as the best nature has to offer, but also a fossilised, archaeological body of work relative to the photographic zeitgeist.
In ‘Genesis’, Salgado has deployed his customary breadth of ambition to attempt to chart the world as it once was, before mass civilisation and the general impact of man was able to bear its imprint on the land. Salgado spent eight years travelling around the globe photographing its remaining pristine environments, their animals and people, in an effort to confront visitors with the wonders that may be lost as a result of Climate Change.
The show is organised by global region, creating five chapters, with one cross-regional chapter for special sanctuaries for biodiversity. There must be close to two hundred images on display, mixing landscapes with wildlife imagery, as well as portraits of various forest dwelling indigenous tribes, mainly in their natural habitats but occasionally in the studio as well. All photographs are presented classically: framed, matted and shot in Salgado’s masterful monochrome. There was a long queue to enter the museum that can be avoided by buying a ticket online before hand.
According to Salgado, his main desire was to capture ‘my species amongst other species, to see coherence in all things’. Salgado was spurred on by the trauma of discovering his family’s farm in the Brazilian rainforest, and the region it was situated in, destroyed by the exploitation of the land caused by modernisation and development. He has since re-planted close to two million trees there, and still found the time to take on this outstandingly ambitious body of work. Salgado says the experience of the farm made him ‘think we are destroying our planet to accumulate things for nothing. To survive and to survive well, to be happy, we don’t need all this’ .
And herein lies the problem. Salgado is so earnest, this project so well-meaning and the work so phenomenally good at times, that it seems mean spirited to cast any aspersions whatsoever. But some issues, alas, must be addressed. Beauty is not enough if one really wants shake people up and confront them with a reality it’s much more convenient to deny. It has the opposite effect in fact, comforting visitors with the knowledge that the untouched still remains and that we are not past the point of no return. Climate Change denial is a crime for which we are all guilty to a certain extent, so to expect a direct representation of the wonders we stand to lose, but to which we are so alien, so far removed, is, in the nicest possible sense, wishful thinking.
Salgado wants to help avoid a world in which the inhabitants of this world’s cities become disconnected from Nature, but the idealism that underpins his desire to do so by photographing the natural world is too easily dismissed and subsequently, the work too easily absorbed and forgotten.
To be clear the work is brilliant, outstandingly so, including some images few other photographers on Earth are capable of capturing. Salgado is a master classicist, a genius devotee to the photographic ideal countless lesser peers have sought to debunk and destabilise over the last few decades. For this artist, there is no Critical Theory, no questions of ‘Truth’ or ‘Authority’; just taking a picture better than anyone else. But, unfortunately, in ‘Genesis’, where he seeks to show beauty directly, his style serves to compound its failings. It is. at times , akin to listening to Classic FM or The Archers; a soothing balm of great technical skill but little import. This is a shame as Salgado can hit hard. His Exodus show at the Barbican in 2003, in which he had photographed the Children of War was one of the most thought provoking shows I have ever seen. His ‘Workers’ and ‘Migrants series are equally hard hitting, so it’s disappointing to see him pull his punches when addressing arguably the most important issue of all.
Sebastaio Salgado, Gensesis @ The National History Museum until 8 September
Words and Pictures by Kerim Aytac