The peripatetic eye Photography of Sebastião Salgado at Scheinbaum & Russek
THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF SEBASTIÃO SALGADO
Sebastião Salgado, the Brazilian photographer known for his unforgettable documentation of epic-scale miseries, has arrived at a new, gentler place. An exhibition opening on Saturday, June 27, at Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd. features grand photos of wildlife, landscapes, and thriving human beings from far-flung locales. These subjects from the new series Genesis show alongside photos from his gritty portfolios Workers (1993) and Migrations (2000). Although the newer material is inarguably milder than what he depicted in his earlier series, Salgado believes it is no less crucial, this time as a celebration of unspoiled Earth. An important stimulus for Genesis was the success of a large-scale reforestation plan initiated by his wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado, on his family’s land in Brazil.
“The Salgados owned a tree plantation in Brazil and basically, not knowing better back then, they sold everything, and all the natural life disappeared, and the place became barren,” Janet Russek said. In 1998, Lélia Salgado came up with the idea of replanting the forest, and the couple established Instituto Terra, a nonprofit organization to help reverse environmental degradation in Brazil. “They started with more than a million seedlings, and now it’s a rain forest again,” said David Scheinbaum, who used to take students to Instituto Terra when he was a professor at the College of Santa Fe (now Santa Fe University of Art and Design). “It’s unbelievable how the land has come back. It’s now a model for Brazil.”
Russek said the regrowth of that bit of rain forest is all about hope, something Salgado lost after repeatedly witnessing death up close in the Sahel, Congo, and Rwanda. “This has given Sebastião such peace and fulfillment. This is what took him out of his depression.” “I hope to make a difference,” the photographer told
The New York Times in May 2009. “It isn’t true that the planet is lost. We must work hard to preserve it.”
Genesis, the result of an eight-year program of travel and photography, is similar in scope — and in the intensity with which Salgado delved into the project — to Workers, which was a seven-year project, and Migrations, which took six years to complete. Like those earlier photo essays, Genesis demonstrates the photographer’s empathy for his subjects and his belief in immersion. “Other photojournalists go in and out for a day,” Peter Fetterman, his gallerist in Santa Monica, told the Times. “Sebastião goes and lives with his subjects for weeks before he even takes a picture.”
Salgado, the son of a cattle rancher, was born on a farm in Aimorés, Brazil. He moved at age five with his family to a small town, at age fifteen to the larger town of Vitória, and then after college to São Paolo, one of the world’s largest cities. In the BBC film Sebastião Salgado: Looking Back at You, he talks about witnessing the daily traffic of sailors and boats coming and going from São Paulo to Europe and Japan. The experience “gave me a fantastic notion of the world, of humanity, of links. ... And that gave me the urge to travel to get an idea of a world so vast, but in the end, so united.”
He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Paris. After graduating, he worked for two years as an economist for the International Coffee Organization. In 1973, he shifted his emphasis to photography. Salgado roamed the villages of Latin America for his book and exhibition Other Americas (1986), and photographed Workers, Terra: Struggle of the Landless (1997), and Migrations, as well as working with Doctors Without Borders for the heartbreaking Sahel: The End of the Road (2004).
Some of the best-known images from Workers were taken at Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mine — a vast excavation that was once a mountain. In The Salt of the Earth, a 2014 film about Salgado (directed by his oldest son and Wim Wenders), he relates that when he first approached the gargantuan hole in the ground and saw the thousands of men toiling there, “It made every hair on my body stand on end.” It was one of the intense reactions he would experience again and again as he traveled the world, using his camera to try to awaken in others the empathy he felt.
For Migrations, he visited 40 countries and photographed hundreds of varieties of human suffering — and of dignity and resiliency. Salgado shot victims of war, repression, and forced migrations. With a mind attuned to the web of economics, he saw the widespread search for employment as “a change of historic significance.” In this and subsequent photographic essays, he captures vast scenes featuring ragged people in the dust — scenes that seem to be lifted from an epic Bible film.
He worked with the photo agencies Sygma, Gamma, and Magnum Photos, and founded his own press agency, Amazonas Images, in 1994. He is a two-time winner of Leica’s Oskar Barnack Award. His other accolades include the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Grant in Humanistic Photography, the Grand Prix National de Ministère de la Culture, and the Alfred Eisenstaedt Life Legend Award. In 2001, photography dealer Scheinbaum, who has carried Salgado’s work since the mid-1980s, staged an exhibition of 300 framed prints simultaneously at three venues: the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Marion Center at the College of Santa Fe, and the Santa Fe Children’s Museum.
I hope to make a difference. It isn’t true that the planet is lost. We must work hard to preserve it. — Sebastião Salgado
Salgado’s career was certainly successful, but his passion for searching out situations involving human pain was taking a toll on him. In Africa, he saw so much death, including of children, that he was ready to put away his camera forever. But when he returned to his childhood farm and engaged in his wife’s vision of replanting the rain forest, it restored his soul. Now he has resumed his peripatetic lifestyle, foraying into the worlds of walruses and elephants and whales, and creating realistic but positive and beautiful essays on the Nenet reindeer herders of Siberia, the Dinka in Sudan, and the Zo’é people of the Amazon. “Some 46 percent of the planet is still as it was in the time of genesis,” said Salgado, who is now seventy-one. “We must preserve what exists.”
His glorious black-and-white prints recall the pristine documents Ansel Adams created at Yosemite in California. “In the beginning when he was working in the Sahel, and it was about famine and disaster and starving children, he was criticized for how beautiful his work was,” Scheinbaum said. “We spoke about that with him. It hurt him a lot. He was very aware that the subjects are so hard, and he was trying to give voice to these situations, but it’s the beauty that’s going to get people to look. It does bring people in, just like good quality in any art form.”
In the new show at Scheinbaum & Russek (now celebrating its 35th anniversary), the viewer sees great contrast, for example, between a 1986 image showing legions of burdened Brazilian gold miners bent to the task of climbing endless cruel ladders and a 2011 photo of a solitary, clothturbaned man praying on a sea of sand in Algeria. “As you see in The
Salt of the Earth, Sebastião reached almost a breakdown point because he became so discouraged about man’s inhumanity to man and the horrors and he actually thought he would stop photography,” Scheinbaum said. “I think Lélia, who also designs all his books and his shows, was part of the push for him to photograph the beauty that still exists in the world. The Genesis project is about hope and beauty.”