The Nexus of Art and Social Documentary: The Photographs of Sebastiåo Salgado

| Publication: Culture Kiosque

BERKELEY – The David Brower Center, a new institute for environmental and social action that opened recently in Berkeley, has chosen an appropriate subject for its inaugural exhibition. Then and Now features 25 large-scale black-and-white images by the renowned Brazilian documentary photographer and environmentalist Sebastião Salgado. Although small in size, the show contains works that span Salgado’s remarkable career, from his monumental projects Workers and Migrations to his current endeavor, Genesis, a seven-year exploration of the earth’s rapidly disappearing pristine environments.

The show contains all the characteristics we have come to expect in Salgado’s work — provocative subjects, dramatic compositions, strong technique. In one of the most powerful photographs, taken in Mali in 1985, the silhouette of an emaciated boy striding across a dried-up lake bed is echoed by the shriveled trees in the background. Another striking image depicts four workers with bundles of wood strapped to their backs slogging across a cloud-shrouded mountain pass in Mexico — a crucifixion scene Hollywood would die for.

What is missing from this show is a sense of context. It simply tries to cover too much ground in too little space. It’s almost like listening to a greatest hits album or reading the Cliff notes of a classic novel. You get a taste of the artist’s work without understanding how it evolved. What came before? What came after? How do the pieces fit together?

In a way Salgado’s strengths are also his weaknesses. His compositions are almost too perfect, his subjects too poignant. I am not suggesting (as some critics have) that some of his photographs were staged, but they sometimes feel too calculated and slick. A close-up of the scaly, clawed foot of an iguana gripping the ground in Mali, for example, would make an excellent publicity shot for a Hollywood monster flick. And a photograph of a Guatemalan woman peering out a window at a young girl balancing a tray of candied apples is enchanting, but the overly tight cropping gives it a theatrical flair.

Another thing I found disappointing about the show was that all the prints save one were produced from digital scans of the original negatives. (The only exception is a marvelous picture of a mudman squatting against the trunk of a massive, moss-covered tree in Papua New Guinea, which was shot with a digital camera.) To my eye these digital prints lacked the sharpness and tonal range of a silver gelatin print made directly from a negative. I asked Mr. Salgado about this at the opening reception and he insisted that the digital prints were actually sharper than prints made from negatives. Perhaps so, but I found the “noise” and contrast of the digital prints distracting.

Then and Now: Photographs by Sebastião Salgado
Through January, 2010
Hazel Wolf Gallery
David Brower Center
2150 Allston Way (at Oxford)
Berkeley, California
Gallery hours: weekdays from 9am – 5pm
Tel: (1) 510 809 09 00

(Original Article)