Sunday, January 9, 2011

Migration and Genesis: Salgado's Epic Worldview

 

The one clear thing about Sebastiao Salgado is that he is absolutely one of the greatest documentary photographers in the world today. Beyond that, he eludes most attempts to define him. The 66 year-old Brazilian economist-turned-photographer's most famous images convey a sense of epic forces unfolding before our eyes, yet most were made with a diminutive 35mm Leica rangefinder camera. And while most photojournalists zero in on a detail or expression that symbolizes a larger theme, Salgado depicts vast impersonal spectacles rendered in the portentous light of a renaissance, romantic or expressionist landscape. His epic sensibility has raised questions: is he a photojournalist or an artist? In fact, he is both, an artist with a journalist's eye for the unfolding story, typically on a mythic scale. In cinematic terms, he combines the starkness of Ingmar Bergman with the scope of Cecil B. Demille. His MIGRATIONS series focused on mass movements of people to or from the sources of their hopes or fears, for instance, the exodus of the rural poor into big cities, or refugees escaping the ravages of war.

What initially suggests columns of ants scaling a steep slope is actually an army of gold miners clambering up the sides of a muddy open pit mine in Brazil. In another photograph, a sprawling sea of humanity in a Rwandan refugee camp spreads across a starkly ragged landscape of makeshift encampments extending into the haze of the horizon. In a widely published image, masses of commuters disembarking a train in Bombay seem to froth like sea foam in a tidal blur. If the travails of the hardscrabble human herd can sometimes seem bleak, Salgado has lately focused on his GENESIS series depicting some the planet's last remaining primal dramas, in images of proud tribal shamans and Sudanese cattle herders as well as vast landscapes of penguins and icebergs in Antarctica. We sense their fragility, yet these images provide immutable evidence of the lingering majesty of those wild remote places not yet parceled off to highest bidder. ~Bookhardt 
Sebastiao Salgado: PHOTOGRAPHS, Through January, 
A Gallery For Fine Photography, 241 Chartres St., 568-1313; 
www.agallery.com