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Genesis Study Visit

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
Sebastião Salgado’s work has many admirers but is not without its detractors. His eight year project Genesis is currently on display at the Natural History Museum and to enable students to make their own mind up we have organised a study visit on the afternoon of Friday 28 June. This will enable students to not only visit the exhibition with expert input from tutor Robert Enoch, but also attend a talk at the museum by Parvati Nair, author of a major review of Salgado’s work, to discuss the messages behind this exhibition.
Places are free to OCA students, but are likely to be in demand, so email enquiries@oca-uk.com to book.

Posted by author: Genevieve Sioka
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47 thoughts on “Genesis Study Visit

  • I have been to the exhibition under my own steam. Loved it but can see why people comment negatively so it will be interesting to see other people’s views. I wish I could attend the talk but due to work its a no can do :o/ Hope those who do attend enjoy it as much as I did :o)

  • I have been but will try and go to the study visit – I can see why some may not be too keen but like others don’t see why there would be a great deal of negativity.

  • I’ve booked a place and am looking forward to this. It’s a long time since I have seen work exhibited by Salgado. I was impressed by his “Workers” exhibition back in the nineties. I’m hoping this one will be as good if not better.

  • This study day is not just about seeing the exhibition but also discussing it and with any luck some of the confusion that seems to surround Salgado and his work will be a topic for discussion. I know that one question is about the way Salgado photographs the destitute and then these images are sold for big money – someone featured in one of his books would be quite likely unable to buy the book or even a print of themselves in it – however, the suggestion that Salgado is exploiting others seems unreasonable when he is doing so much to highlight the injustices they may be suffering and represent them. I suspect if there is hostility to him it would be because he showing the dirt that has been swept under the carpet!? Anyway, my understanding is that this is what we can discuss during the study day!

    • ‘I suspect if there is hostility to him it would be because he showing the dirt that has been swept under the carpet!?’
      Quite the opposite I think Amano. I do not think it is hostility, rather I would call it concern and if I were to try and summarise it in a sentence it is because there is a concern that the dirt is being romantisied.
      It is going to be a good visit.

      • Genesis is a survey of nature rather than the effect man is having on nature … I look forward to seeing this exhibition again to see if it an over rosy view … Susie Linfield points out that most critics seem to “hate” photography … photographers even more so perhaps!

  • Apologies folks, I was rushing to get this post published and Robert has quite rightly pointed out that I could have been more explicit about why some viewer find Salgado’s work problematic.
    I think Jose Navarro summed up the concern quite concisely when he said:
    ‘Salgado seems to ignore the complexity of contemporary visual language. In today’s visual-led society, that’s more than just a little reckless.’
    You can read his WeAreOCA article on Genesis (called with classic Jose modesty ‘Can’t Make Up My Mind’) here and there is an earlier post which explores similar territory called ‘The Ethics of Aesthetics’ here.

  • A further take on the Genesis exhibition is given by our friends over at Duckrabbit – well worth a read

  • Has anyone got an idea as to the starting time for this study visit. I am trying to organise travel and need confirmation of times.

    • It is timed entry for the exhibition at 1pm, so you probably need to be there 15 minutes before that. Joining instructions will be emailed out on Friday.

    The most appropriate use of these techniques is in image correction or to subtly shift compositional balance. It’s possible to take this too far and end up with a painting rather than a photograph.
    I can’t teach you how to use every image processing program out there, but I can give you a few pointers here to help you on your way.
    1. Making photos black and white: you can either use the Black & White Adjustment Layer, which is advised in all Photoshop work as it is non-destructive. Always save your files to Photoshop format (PSD) so that the layers are saved. You can also use the Gradient Map Adj. Layer (with a black and white gradient) which tends to preserve the contrast of the original image well. You can also go to Image> Mode> Grayscale, but this is a permanent change. Obviously this doesn’t matter if you Save As “Landscape_1_B&W”.
    2. Split-Contrast: a difficult technique in the darkroom which is far easier in digital, whereby the image is given different contrast (Curves or Levels) in different areas of the picture. This can enhance Depth and help achieve a better compositional balance. Use a Curves Adj. Layer, a subtle S shape will increase contrast, an inverted S will reduce contrast. In the Layers palette, the rectangle to the right Curves is a Layer Mask. When you use the Brush to paint on this layer with Black, you are removing the effect of the Curves layer from the image, i.e. returning it to the way it was before you increased or decreased contrast. You can also use the Gradient Tool to mask parts of the image. This can be useful with burnt out skies. If you use White (Press X to change from black to white) you are removing the ‘masking’ and so will affect the image with the Adj. Layer.
    3. Dodging and Burning is about selectively lightening or darkening parts of the image. The Dodge and Burn tools are destructive in Photoshop, so here is a better way:
    Create a New Layer.
    Edit> Fill> 50% Grey. You should also be able to press Shift F5 to do this.
    Change the Blending Mode of this layer to Overley.
    Now use the Brush tool on 5 – 10% to lighten (White brush) and darken (Black brush) areas of the image. This was very evident in Salgado’s ice berg picture. You can then reduce the effect by reducing the Opacity of that ‘Dodging & Burning’ layer.
    Try not to over-do any of this, as Salgado and his assistants evidently have – we all noticed that! Most photographers use these techniques but not in a way that you would notice them. This is because there is a danger that the Form (design) of the picture becomes more prominent than the subject itself. This is tantamount to being a CRIME for a social documentary photographer! You do notice them a lot in fashion/commercial photography and particularly weddings/portrait photography, where the ‘ideal’ is favoured over the real!!

    • “Try not to over-do any of this, as Salgado and his assistants evidently have ”
      I don’t understand. Is this not simply a matter of taste? Is it not reasonable to assume that Salgado and his assistants are sufficiently capable to have made a concious decision on the level of dodging and burning? It may be a decision that some don’t like, but that’s a different issue.
      And I can’t help but wonder what the standard for form being more prominent than subject is. Surely any image that uses shallow depth of field is guilty of that since our brain assembles the image so that everything is in focus in reality. Ditto any image that uses a polarising filter and how about Weegee’s images – many are very obviously lit by flash. Through habituation we don’t generally notice it but if you look the form is very obvious.
      And a final, puzzled, question – why does it matter if it’s a painting or a photo provided that it carries the message you want?

      • It isn’t about taste.
        If you come across a man lying dead on the pavement (Weegee) or if the icecaps are melting because of over-production and conspicuous consumerism, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, it’s just happening to you. You are being ethically challenged.
        Genesis is supposedly informed by an environmental conscientiousness and a desire to show the wonder of Nature. What does it say about Salgado’s attitude to “pristine” Nature however, if he has to process and enhance it? Isn’t it another way of saying, “I don’t like it the way it is, therefore I’ll change it to suit my ideal?” The emphasis here is on the photographer’s ‘vision’. Nature is rendered passive and powerless.
        Can you see there is a conflict of Form and Content here. The message is confused.
        Contrast this with Joseph Bueys “I love America and America loves me” where he lived with a coyote for a week.

        • I take your point on taste – it is clearly more than that. I can see that you see a conflict between Form and Content, and I believe I can see the features that inform that view for you. However I think their are alternative readings of the images that mean for me the processing is less problematic.
          I have not seen the exhibition in the flesh, only as web out-takes, so I am perhaps on weak ground, but I notice that in one of his interviews he acknowledges that nowhere on earth is really untouched by man. To me this was self-evident – there is no remaining Eden – the idea is a fantasy. My reading of the processing prior to this discussion was that some of the tone-mapping, for example, spoke to this. This is a pristine earth that is simply a fantasy for most of us.
          I have also seen suggested that in, for example, the pictures of the Grand Canyon, the burning in of the sky talks to that part of the water cycle (rain) which is largely responsible for the landscape in the image – so that the processing gives it equal prominence with the land. This was not my reading, but it is an interesting take.
          So there are ways the images can be read which do not provide the same Form/Conflict dichotomy. I think we should credit the print producers with the skills to produce the images they wanted.That they may not speak to us in ways that we wanted seems to me to be our problem as much as their’s.
          To be honest a much bigger problem for me is that we are being told about our environmental impact by someone who has spent 8 years in jet-setting around the planet with a zillion pounds worth of high tech photography equipment. To me the fundamental conflict is between Message and Behaviour.

    • “Try not to over-do any of this, as Salgado and his assistants evidently have – we all noticed that!” …. well I did not!
      I thought this visit would answer questions but it has raised them instead … which is what Parvati Nair suggested would be an appropriate response in her short talk.

      • actually there was one image of Seals which I found myself questioning … it looked like a digital original (most were made on film) … seemed to be the result of an under-exposed image … not so much “over-done” rather not very convincing … Parvati Nair says she is not happy with some of Salgado’s digital work

        • CORRECTION – most of the images may not have been made on film since since 2008 Salgado has been using a high end DSLR – there is so much to consider in this exhibition and one can not be sure of the processes behind some of the images.

        • You may want to look at the work of Pierre & Gilles, Joel-Peter Witkin (not for the faint hearted) and Gregory Crewdson, with reference to the relationship between Photography as Painting. And certainly in the case of Crewdson, Photography as Cinema. These are all extreme uses of artifice and technical virtuosity. The point is to notice how it affects the interpretation.

  • I was looking at the Freeman view the other day. Apparently there is a parallel exhibition on in London of the same work. That one is a selling exhibition. Not sure what that reveals about it!

  • This is a good mixed response to the exhibition, weighing up the positives and negatives. I also found the portraits among the better work here. Salgado was always a talented humanist photographer.
    One point that stuck out:
    “Art is about aesthetics” – Really? Aesthetic aspects of Form invariably play a part in the things we make as photographers. But this is key to understanding what you do as a photographer: where’s your emphasis?
    Have you noticed that most people who talk about this exhibition talk about the Photographs and not the Subjects of the photographs and what they mean?

    • “… most people who talk about this exhibition talk about the Photographs and not the Subjects of the photographs and what they mean?” … that is true Robert perhaps because the meaning of these images is not easy to read. I have relied a lot on Nair’s book to look closer at what Salgado might be saying. Photography is an international language but also a silent one.

  • An interesting discussion. I’m sorry to have missed the study visit but have enjoyed reading the blogs. I continue to be in two minds about this work. I don’t doubt Salgado’s integrity or desire to make a positive difference – this film on Ted is very powerful http://www.ted.com/talks/sebastiao_salgado_the_silent_drama_of_photography.html
    but do have problems with what seems to me to be excessive formalism in this context. I agree that the messages are at best mixed and I also find the use of nude women as examples of pristine nature distasteful.
    Overall though I thought Siegfried put her finger on it when she said that as a piece of advertising or a campaign it was effective. The film does make me think about whether to sponsor more tree planting, and I wouldn’t have seen the film without the exhibition publicity.

    • A good talk, and it is notable that the two most telling Genesis photos are the two that weren’t even in the exhibition, that Salgado shows at the end of this film.
      It is also interesting to hear Salgado talk about his ‘sickness of human nature’ and the healing process of reforesting his parents land and the contact he had with nature in the big Genesis journey he made.

  • What I have found problematic is that the message of these images is vast and incredibly pertinent; even if others have done it before, they have not done it quite like this.
    So looking at images and tutting over use of contrast or perhaps grain seems almost silly. It is a bit like looking at a Don Mac Cullin photo of a dead person and saying “He’d have been better off with a Leica and TMAX 100.”
    There are many ways to read a photo and I think one can not ignore what Parvati Nair calls the “polity” of these images.

  • I wonder if there is argument to be made in Salgado’s favour – that his photographs address a particular section of society and they seem to work for them. I have trouble with his work because the form of them communicates something other than the intention – but I’m fairly sure I’m not the target audience…. So I was wondering – who is his target audience?

  • Photography has an innate capability to present beauty. Beauty used as an aesthetic tool that can overwhelm the viewer with it’s power to draw people in; I’m thinking here of the likes of Burtynsky, Roberts, Nelson, Hunter and others who recognize that engaging a viewer is part of the ‘job’. As Hunter explained on the talk he did for a study day a few months ago – still available as a video from Siegfried I think – without engagement there can be no communication. That an image presents itself firstly to connect, and then, through engagement, to re-present a narrative that seeks to inform or elucidate an audience is, surely, a tool that photographers, let alone documentary practitioners have. The opposite may also be true, that a subversion of beauty may equally entrance a viewer in order to capture their attention.
    My thoughts on Genesis were that Salgado does neither and so leaves the viewer wondering whether they should focus on the image – as one might with a Jack Vettriano – pleasant to look at maybe, but with no actual depth, or, as I would imagine the supporters of Salgado would have us believe, that the image leads us, as viewers, to contemplate the state of the world. I felt perhaps, when I first saw the work, that maybe his presentation was a metaphor for how he saw the world, falling apart, crumbling at the edges, such was the effect of the quality of the aesthetic, but I don’t think that anymore after viewing the film of him in California with almost evangelical fervor. Clearly there was a purpose to re-present the world as an ‘other’, for why else would he want to present it as a monochrome image? And this is where the presentation, notwithstanding the connotations derived from the titular narrative, becomes the core to this viewer. If the beauty of the world, as Salgado professed to present in its pristine glory, were re-presented in a manner that was paralleled in this lofty ambition then I at least, may have been struck with the awe that I feel he thinks I should feel. If the scale of that same ambition had been matched by the quality of the monochrome interpretation – in, for example, an apparent infinite array of tones, then this viewer’s engagement would not have faltered at the precipice before the image, and I may have picked up my rags and followed him. And why choose monochrome? It is a clichéd form surely “in the wilderness”? Unless its use was to form part of the structure of the narrative, and how was that served by the variety of framing and trite titling, to say nothing of the humanity being portrayed?
    These images with their inadequate processing therefore, presented a barrier to fully engage with the narrative in a conversation that I, and seemingly many others, might rather have had?

    • Inadequate for whom? I found the same conflict between style and content in Rankin’s Alive: In the face of death. I was not alone in this, but surely that is a feature of my interpretation rather than a fault in the work, as others found them moving and involving.
      This whole discussion suggests to me that there is some absolute standard for the content/style balance. If that is the case – who decides where it lies? If that is not the case what is the justification for descriptions such as “inadequate” and “overdone”. Why are we not prepared to accept, that with the resources at his disposal, Salgado has produced a series of images that meet his vision? The fact that they do not meet ours is about us, not him.

  • I do not consider the aesthetic debate nicely outlined by John and Nigel to be central to the debate around Salgado’s work. Obviously though, as photographers it is of interest to us. For instance, I notice in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year annual exhibition which is held in the same exhibition space that colours are often “popped” for effect and this I find misleading – the world does not look like that. In black and white this question does not arise since one knows that the images are abstract and not being posited as real.
    Unfortunately, Parvati Nair in the talk the OCA group attended between seeing the exhibition and discussing it, did not really get the chance to speak only answer questions. She would have talked more about the polity of Salgado (her discussion of Genesis forms the final chapter to her book on Salgado) which does not mean that Salgado is an activist (something he denies) rather that there is a kind of fall out to his work. The environment today is big news, too big perhaps for the daily newspapers to consider, but which is a topic for discussion all over the planet. While some deny climate change, others are doing what they can to avoid it. Yet apart from environmental issues, there are more personal ones such as our relationship to both the land and animals which Salgado is questioning. The leg and foot of a lizard photographed close up in detail looks like a human arm and hand has the power to question the differences between and animal and human.
    Salgado comes from what is sometimes called The Global South which is a very different place to the North (from where most of us reading this blog will be from). His aesthetic is bound to be different as well as his view on colonialism and the dominance of the North in this respect. There is something different about Salgado and one might need to venture a little out of one’s comfort zone to take it on board.

    • continuing from above, I would like to quote a few words from Nair …
      “The politics of his (Salgado’s) photography is precisely this: to decenter the modern viewer, and the large machinery of modern sophistication that engulfs and beclouds him or her, so that a sense of wonder may return … ”
      Aristotle talked of aesthetics and politics as being almost inseperable; I wonder if some of the objections to Salgado’s aesthetics is also concern about the politics of Salgado
      I don’t accept everything Nair writes … “still photographs offer the last remaining spaces where wonderment can be experienced.” One can surely find appropriate spaces even within cities that might evoke wonderment!

  • In regard to the aesthetic argument, I must say that I find Salgado’s images quite stark. Black and white with not a lot in-between which runs contrary to a lot of black and white work from more northern realms where grey is also considered an important tone and can make up the majority of the image; look at work by John Davies for instance …
    His work is on show at Arles! … http://www.johndavies.uk.com/
    Salgado is I think influenced by Brazilian modernism.

  • When I suggested to the OCA that a day at the Salgado exhibition might be appropriate (it took some time for agreement on this issue) it was because although I had already seen the exhibition I felt there was a lot more to understand. For instance, although I was aware of the argument that Salgado was making a lot of money out of representing desperately poor people (not one I take on board) it seemed that I might be missing something.
    The penny eventually dropped when I posted one of his images onto another WeAreOCA blog entitled “Representing Women” http://www.weareoca.com/photography/women/#comments
    The link to the image is here …
    I thought this image would be good for the debate and was completely surprised by one response that said the image was set up in specially created studio; at first, I could not believe it but there is even a video about this.
    Of course, this practice is not uncommon among photographers and it seems I had been seduced by the spin about Salgado in thinking that his primary object was to objectively record these people of the Zo’e tribe rather than glamourise them and make them into a marketable product and aesthetic object. As members of the tribe carry branches to construct the makeshift studio under Salgado’s direction, he assumes the role of neo-colonialist rather than liberator.

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