Genesis, by Sebastião Salgado (trade edition), Taschen, 2013
Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
Indian-born photographer John Isaac worked for many years for the United Nations, documenting its work around the world. Regular readers of Outdoor Photographer may be familiar with his work. After years of grueling first-person experience with natural disaster, environmental devastation and human suffering, Isaac suffered a spiritual crisis and retired from his job as chief U.N. photographer. He gradually healed and returned to creative life by immersing himself in nature, photographing India's tigers and remaining pristine rainforests.
The Brazilian economist-turned-photographer Sebastião Salgado has traveled a similar path over the last decade. Many will be familiar with his justly famous books Workers (1993) and Migrations (2000), photo books documenting, respectively, the toils and dignity of manual laborers, and the tribulations of displaced populations around the globe. More recent was Africa (2007), a stunning book that juxtaposes exquisitely composed photographs of the Rwandan holocaust with achingly beautiful landscape images. As Salgado explains in the foreword for Genesis, at the completion of these projects, "I had lost all faith in the future of humanity." He retired to his family's ranch in rural Brazil and commenced an intensive project of environmental restoration, replanting its eroded and degraded land with native flora.
As the land rapidly healed and native wildlife returned, so too did Salgado's enthusiasm. He initially considering documenting environmental degradation and global warming, but instead embarked upon an eight year project to explore and document what he terms the 46% of the globe that remains ecologically intact. He pointedly included the indigenous peoples still living close to the earth, relatively untouched by industrialization. This was a monumental project for the photographer, involving four months-long expeditions a year for eight consecutive years, complicated by a bout of malaria.
Salgado's work is exclusively black and white, and has been characterized by meticulous composition and a dramatic interpretive printing style. He has used Leica and Pentax 645 film cameras in the past, but migrated to digital capture during the course of the Genesis project. As explained by the photographer's wife and partner, the resulting digital files were converted into analog negatives and silver prints to insure a consistent æsthetic throughout the project.
Like Paul Caponigro at one time, Salgado has the good fortune to be married to his book designer. Lélia Wanick Salgado has created a beautiful volume. Genesis is too large to hand-hold comfortably, but does fine in your lap. Margins are generous, and the paper is a very nice heavyweight semi-gloss stock. The typography is a cut above the average; the Adobe Garamond typeface used includes the ligatures that are usually omitted out of sloth, and the type size is large enough to appreciate the subtle details of the font. The photographic reproductions are excellent, with deep blacks and endless detail in the 3/4 tones, features essential to sympathetic rendering of Salgado's dramatic print æsthetic. A good number are printed across the fold, though the book's sheer size makes this less objectionable than usual. There are also a smattering of gate-folds. Most welcome is a separate 34 page insert that provides details about each photograph's subject. Bravo; no more trips to the back of the chapter for footnotes.
The book is broadly divided into sections by subject: "Planet South" (Antarctica and adjacent ocean/islands), "Sanctuary" (isolated habitats such as the Galápagos, New Guinea, and Madagascar), "Africa," "Northern Spaces," and "Amazonia and Pantanal." Each includes exquisitely rendered pristine landscape images, wildlife often rendered as part of the landscape, and indigenous peoples both in formal portraits and integrated with the environment.
It would almost be superfluous to comment on the photographs themselves. If you like a simple, straight, documentary approach they may not be to your taste. But if you like the dramatic, expressive black and white æsthetic à la Ansel Adams, it's difficult to imagine a more beautiful book.
©2013 by Geoffrey Wittig, all rights reserved
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