Salgado and the Chocolate factory

Image from ‘A Ruptured Duck’at the Menier Gallery by Chrissie Westgate and featuring Sophie Weaver. Reprinted by kind permission of the artist: Chrissie Westgate

Image from ‘A Ruptured Duck’ at the Menier Gallery by Chrissie Westgate and featuring Sophie Weaver.
Reprinted by kind permission of the artist: Chrissie Westgate

I went to two exhibitions today. Genesis, the ‘blockbuster’ by Salgado at the Natural History Museum and the annual Arena exhibition at Menier Gallery in the Chocolate Factory in Southwark.

Of course the one exhibition provided a glimpse of absolute beauty, dealing with issues that are current in an exemplary environment. The quality of the prints matching the ambitions of the photographer in a way that could be described as inspirational; the human condition, the fragile environment all presented in a way as to reflect the ambitions of the photographer and, one suspects the organization behind the exhibition. But enough of the Menier gallery, which I will come to again shortly.

The Genesis (was there ever an exhibition that so surely falters on it’s own title as badly as this one does?) stalls at the first image. Grandly entitled and with the stated ambition to provide a view of the world as it was before life inhabited it, we see several (quite poorly printed) images with countless thousands of inhabitants striving for a remnant of space in an already overcrowded world.

Genesis is an attempt to portray the beauty and the majesty of regions that are still in a pristine condition, areas where landscapes and wildlife are still unspoiled, places where human communities continue to live according to their ancient culture and traditions.

Genesis is about seeing and marvelling (sic), about understanding the necessity for the protection of all this; and finally it is about inspiring action for this preservation.” http://www.amazonasimages.com/grands-travaux

That it took a large crew since 2004, travelling a few times around the globe to get these shots is one to consider, that the exhibition is set up to deliver imagery from the position of a God-like importance is yet another, that the prints are generally poorly executed and mostly over-processed yet another consideration, that we discover the sensuous curves of women for the delight of the gaze is just one more on the list. That these considerations all combine to suggest to this viewer that Salgado doesn’t really care enough about the viewer, and if so, why should we believe that he cares about what he (I suppose) pointed his Canon or Leica at?

Salgado, one assumes, is freighted around the planet and provided privileged views of vistas that the normal Joe Doe photographer could only wonder at. And what has he delivered with this privilege?

I went to the museum expecting to come away with some sense of awe and wonder. I expected to experience a great worker in the tradition of documentary. I came away wondering why so many of the prints were falling apart at the seams. I wondered, at first, whether this crumbling of the image was a kind of metaphor for the way the world is starting to crumble under the weight of expectation of it’s inhabitants, but then how did that excuse the leaden post processing and the  very tenuous narrative linkage between both the images and the series as a whole. The use of captions needed some believing: To an image of a whale’s tail – “At times only the tails of the Southern Right whales are visible”. And, well I’ll leave this to the imagination “Unusually the Sothern Right Whales have two separate blow-holes. As a result, a cloud of vapour in a distinctive V-shape appears when these whales surface.” At least we know now what it is are seeing, it is an instruction.

The ‘Male-gaze’ was fully served by the ample nudity on display, and for the life of me I can’t think of a good reason for any of it. Nudes objectified with no apparent justification, other than Salgado was in a position to ‘take’ their images and display them in a gallery. If someone could describe the validity of Namibia 2005 to me, with all the very apparent post processing I would be very grateful!

I did get student discount, which was about the best part of the exhibition for me.

By comparison the Arena show at the Menier Gallery at the Chocolate Factory was very good. Arena are a disparate group of photographers who are linked by a common thread of excellent printing over a range of genre’s. The wildlife photography every bit an equal to anything Salgado produced. Of particular note was Mark Megilley, Chrissie Westgate’s work with Sophie Weaver (whose work I hope to illustrate this blog entry with), Colin Summers and Tim Rudman. It would be very difficult to elaborate on all of these photographers, suffice to say that I’m glad I went there after the Natural History Museum (but no student discount though).

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14 thoughts on “Salgado and the Chocolate factory

  1. seems a bit unkind to Salgado, John, considering what he went through over the years to get these shots? I’ve read a few interviews where he describes the conditions,which are more than I could take even being 20 years younger.
    I passed up on buying the book though because the quality didn’t impress, but I will be going to the exhibition at some point and hope it isn’t as bad as you describe.
    from the book I guess the “nudes” are locals who don’t wear clothes, so perhaps it’s not completely gratuitous. One article I saw had several men naked apart from reeds wrapped around their erect four foot penises, so maybe there’s more to it than the “male gaze”.

  2. Don’t mean to be unkind. But Salgado would have been well cosseted as he was transported around the world. He had access to the best glass in the world and the prints did not nearly match that capability nor the aspirational claims to the project, perhaps he shouldn’t have ‘bigged’ it up as much as he did.
    As for the nudes, well you’ll judge it for yourself no doubt – but, as you’ll have read Berger by now 🙂 , I say these women are portrayed nude and not naked, and that is my point.

  3. Now I have read your post, I am really looking forward to see the exhibition with the OCA crowd tomorrow. I have read his work on “workers” in the library. To be honest, I quite like it. My only problem is the book is too lengthy, and I think the more you squeeze into a book, the less time one can study anything in details.

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  5. I went yesterday and we must have been to a different exhibition. Granted there were one or two “sensuous curves” on display and that’s what women look like, clothed or not. In the jungle they are dressed if they’re wearing bangles and the chin thing, and I didn’t see even an inference that sex was suggested. Even the two maidens daubed to show their availability for marriage weren’t suggesting any sexual availability.
    Concerning the printing I could not see how it could be bettered. The photos were obviously created for the “aesthetic discourse” and the gallery reciprocated by supplying a perfect backdrop of panels toned for each of the themed areas.
    A recent BJP article discussed how the prints are made, and touched on the whole process. Salgado used film until only recently which explains the grain in several images, and since switching to a Canon 1DMkIII he uses DxO software to mimic the effects of Kodak Tri-X which changed formulae and thus upset Salgado’s “look”. The process in his Paris studio reminded me of Jeff Koons’ studio, and this methodology appears to be how to succeed in the art world. In Salgado’s world this means presenting the highest quality consistent standards. His Genesis exhibition is currently on show in London, Paris, Rio, Toronto, and Rome, and all the prints were created and framed in his Paris studio.
    The smaller Taschen book is not printed so well as the collector’s editions (at £2,500 and £7,000) but is available for £28 on Amazon and I’ve just ordered a copy. A collector’s edition on display is opened at an image of a bison printed at around 3 feet square(?) and seems almost life size, and you could be sitting on its back. If I had a spare seven grand and a large space to display it, I’d have one.

    I’m not sure we share the same understanding of “cosseted” either. Several of Salgado’s sites have been visited by the BBC and David Attenburgh, and the “making of” clips do not give any insight into how anyone could be “cosseted”. In one series the team are up in a tree house and the women want to see the female team member’s boobs or maybe her bra, so she removes it, but the camera does not show her topless because that it is not her normal dress, whereas the local are dressed in their culture so that is acceptable to show on film.

    Cosseted or not, this is one of the most impressive bodies of work I’ve ever encountered.

    • I think we were at the same exhibition Brian, just that you saw things differently to me. I’m really glad you got something out of it. I did read the BJP article, which I didn’t agree with either! And a few other pieces and still stand by what I said and felt about the work, in fact I probably think less of the work the more I’ve studied it and his ethos. But there we are, no-one said we have to agree. Thanks again for your considered opinion.

  6. Excellent, you know with the TV group work and now level two Landscape this is starting to feel like an academic course where I can’t just take photos to survive. I’m currently testing out my understanding of the aesthetic discourse so I focus on that for Salgado, which obviously proves to be limiting, so I almost fall back on the tried and tested “do I like it?” stance for comfort. Further research suggests that even though Salgado’s work is valid within his objectives, it isn’t universally welcomed, thus provoking unresolvable debate around objectives, genres, art itself.

    • What I’ve found is the notion of liking something isn’t usually the basis by which I judge a piece of work. For example, there’s nothing to like about ‘If this is a man’ by Primo Levi, but it is an important work of art and one that I turn to to try and understand man’s position in the world, similarly The Kolyma Tales by Shalamov isn’t a pretty set of tales, but nevertheless important. It can be, to keep the literary thread going, that a work of art can be beautiful too, Anna Karenina by Tolstoy comes to mind. However, Salgado for me wasn’t even pretty, more like a formica worktop on a deal frame dining table, a lot of gloss but lacking in substance. 😉

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  9. Only just came across this blog but can fully concur with your review of the Salgado exhibition.

    I too came away deeply unimpressed by some over processed photos and a massive marketing exercise. For me it was one ‘over hyped’ jamboree to make as much money as possible. Even the feedback form did not have a space to comment on the photos but asked things like ‘if you could recall who the sponsor was?’.

  10. Pingback: Narrative -Sebastião Salgado – Jan's Foray into Documentary

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