01 2015

Genesis by Sebastião SalgadoKate Auerbach

If I were a documentary photographer, I would not be able to resist following Salgado to remote regions hidden from the modern world. Until then, I prefer the more comforting way of exploring these places via his exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York. Salgado is well known for his documentary photography, mainly reflecting social issues. The exhibition presents large – both in scale and significance – black and white prints capturing places and people who escaped the imprint of civilization.

The Antarctic Penincula
Sebastião Salgado, The Arctic Peninsula, 2005. © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas images – Contact Press Images.

I start my journey by looking at the photograph of Antarctic Peninsula and imagine that I traveled thousands of miles to smell the fresh, cold wind that cuts to the bone. My eyes squint from the sun's reflections dancing on the waves of the sea and playing hide-and-seek on top of the iceberg. I cannot even see where the iceberg ends.

While taking this photograph, Salgado thought: "I don't know if I can do this. It's too big... I ask myself it it's possible to represent it by pictures." Not a soul can capture something as massive as an iceberg in its full scale on a photograph. Typically, only one-tenth of it is actually visible to the human eye – the rest is hidden under the surface of the sea. Obviously, Salgado was familiar with this fact, so instead of capturing the iceberg in its full size, he steers our attention towards other details: the texture of the iceberg versus skies, the naturally keyhole-like arch within the iceberg, the reflections of the sun on the water... The arch is the compositional center of the photograph. It is positioned in the frame towards the bottom-left corner, which is a "grammatically" correct move if we talk photography. The picture is obviously taken digitally, so Salgado had to underexpose it to see the iceberg's details. This photograph touches me, and I can barely imagine how our descendants may lose it all due to global warming and climate change.

Kafue National Park
Sebastião Salgado, Kafue National Park, Zambia, 2010. © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas images – Contact Press Images.

In some of his interviews, Salgado describes himself as a storyteller. Through the next set of photographs he implicitly tells us a devastating story regarding endangered species, and the elephant is one of them.

The elephant depicted in the photograph at the Kafue National Park in Zambia moves towards the light, similar to a train roaring towards the light at the end of a tunnel. The light removes some of the details of the elephant's body making it look like a silhouette. Even though the elephant is the focal point of the image, it is partially hidden behind the bushes and beams of light. He is the ghost of the enormous population of elephants that existed not too long ago.

Inside the Arctic Circle
Sebastião Salgado, Inside the Arctic Circle, Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, Russia, 2011. © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas images – Contact Press Images.

I am Russian, but I do not come from Moscow or St. Petersburg. Most people who do not know much about Russia suspect that, since I do not come from one of those capital cities, I am [most likely] from Siberia. I do not even know what Siberia looks like. But Salgado, who traveled to northern Siberia to photograph groups of nomadic people, does.

The skies are dramatic and too low to the ground. Wait a minute, and they will fall down and smash everything underneath them! The only detail that separates the skies from the ground is not the horizon but the barely visible gradient transitioning from gray to snowy white. My guess is that the photographer used a wide angle lens, which brought the subject of the photograph closer and preserved the impression of the landscape being endless. The person on the sled looks frozen. He is motionless not only because the weather is too difficult to travel and it is hard to stay warm, but also because he will never leave Siberia. His ancestors have been living here, and his sons and daughters will continue his wandering journey across northern Siberia.

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