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).