Black and White photography has long lingered in the background of media vultures, especially advertising, e.g. Bruce Weber, et al. Most point and shoot cameras and applications (Photoshop Elements which comes with cameras) have conversions to B/W or Sepia color modes. Instagram, the industry leader, for now, offers alterations of images to make inferior, common images, more interesting, has various applications to covert the default, RGB photos.
In this age, dare I say it again, bombardment of images, especially with young people, it is very difficult to make a compelling image, even in the news. An advertisement professes that there are now billions of photo-journalists due to cell phones. Wherever we go, everyone is shooting pictures of themselves in front of monuments — such narcissism!! As if the monuments were not enough. As a professional photographer of forty years, I wonder what people do with these images after the initial blush of a nanosecond on Facebook wears out…or maybe it does not matter. This spiral down to meaninglessness in imagery does have a few exceptions.
The current exhibition at Ara Pacis Museum, in Rome, running through September 15, 2013, displays the remarkable power image of picture making by Salgado. He is one of the few photographers who still explores the compelling influence of black and white photography. This current series, begun in 2006, explores the visual sources of our planet. The images seem to be conceptually divided between plants, animals and humans in the primordial reaches of earth. Divided into the four quadrants of the globe, the exhibition displays the compelling life forces rendered by an extremely talented visual explorer.
They are epic.
As in his previous series, Migrations, Salgado’s skill to place the viewer within the environment and gestalt of the conditions, whether it is the reindeer keepers in Siberia, or the rituals in Papua New Guinea, you are inside the locale! His technique of perspective, high contrast film and doggedness (spending months with each subject) reveal the insider’s view, this is a pale but nonetheless the best description of what the viewer sees.
Grandiosity is the term I apply to his images. His selection of ‘The Grand’ is not a Hollywood ploy, as found in Liebovitz’s celebrity images; it is compelled by the subject matter itself, like a medium of the message, that these subject primordially harbor, hence the title of the series. Granted these subjects are not ordinary, his treatment of them avows the underlining import of each subject. I find the plant series the most compelling and feel it reveals his vision.
One is not caught up in the social complexities of tribes or even animal behavior. Ansel Adams and his coterie photographed landscapes in Black and White, but in a documentary style, applying photo techniques (the Zone System) to render the realistic tonal values of the land. Salgado’s is the new world, probably brought on by the dullness of our vision.
Salgado pushes the tones to unrealistic levels to dramatize the plight of the condition of earth. Whales tails poke out of churning waters, lizards preen on rocks, and birds hold their postures for a photographer who takes the time to investigate their surroundings. His rendition of the Galapagos Islands is a rare treatment by a skillful ‘seeer.’ His images are anthropomorphic, whether it be animals or plants.
In a world of disposable imagery, Sebastiao Salgado’s work stands heads above the other renditions. The question remains, if the current cell phone image makers are able to see these compelling picture of our planet…or even bother to take the time. I hope so, but as I travel the world, I am reminded each day of the lack of interest in looking, just “Kilroy was here” approach to the experience, initiated by the Japanese when the first Instamatics came to be in the seventies.
To take the time to reflect on Salgado’s vision, and to luxuriate on the richness of the prints themselves, is a pleasure beyond words. I am so pleased that a shooter of his caliber is still on the road capturing images that change our lives and our perception of the World. Furthermore, that museums honor his work, as very well displayed here in Rome, gives me hope for image making and the future of our planet.