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Capturing the Fantastic: Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis at the Natural History Museum

Capturing the Fantastic: Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis at the Natural History Museum

Picture of Kitty Hudson
Updated: 27 January 2016
Born in Brazil, Sebastião Salgado is an acclaimed photographer whose photographic projects have inspired countless people all over the globe. Both beautiful and stirring, his photographs are renowned for capturing reality in seemingly fantastical moments. With the opening of his new exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, Kitty Hudson introduces this adept artist and contemplates his latest display.

To see images from this exhibition please visit the Natural History Museum’s website or Sebastião Salgado’s website.


The opening image of this truly awe-inspiring exhibition depicts an iceberg in the Antarctic. It looks as if it has been sculpted, designed specifically for the habitation of man with its neat keyhole-shaped arch and the rectilinear fortress formation above. In stark black and white, the charcoal smudges of unsettled clouds contrast with the jagged, sharply defined facets of the iceberg, which sits on the glittering surface of the water. Such an image perfectly articulates the aesthetic and objectives of Genesis: to present the still unspoiled corners of our planet in order to provoke in us a new consciousness and respect for the natural environment.


Salgado took up photography after an initial career as an economist, and this understanding of the impact of trade and commerce on the natural world – along with his upbringing on a Brazilian farm – have clearly informed his current environmentalist stance. When Salgado and his wife Lélia – the editor, designer and curator of the exhibition – went back to his family farm to take over in the early nineties, they found it totally destroyed by development and modernisation. This inspired them to start replanting the rainforest, and in 1998 they set up their environmental organisation, Instituto Terra, in Brazil. Salgado was thus motivated to record his personal reconnection with nature through the medium of photography – already employed to great effect in two previous long-term projects that also addressed global issues, Workers and Migrations.


However, Salgado is keen to deny any other motive than revealing to people the unknown wonders of our planet. He does not see the images as a focus for political debate, or as anthropological or scientific studies. They were created simply as beautiful pictures, conveying Salgado’s own delight in nature, and in this they unquestionably succeed. In terms of the sheer scale of both the prints themselves and the vastness of the landscapes that they depict, the images rival those of Ansel Adams, while their monochrome austerity – Salgado has stated that he ‘preferred the chiaroscuro palette of black-and-white images’ – gives them a powerful formal presence. It is also clear that Salgado has used traditional photographic equipment, rather than digital, as some of the enlarged prints show the distinctive, atmospheric graininess that enhances the overall effect, giving precision and texture to the print.


The exhibition is broadly arranged by geographical location, weaving from ‘Planet South’, to ‘Sanctuaries’, ‘Africa’, ‘Northern Spaces’, and lastly ‘Amazonia and Pantanal’. These environments were selected with the advice of UNESCO World Heritage and Conservation International for their biodiversity, and Salgado captures the extraordinary range of flora and fauna that thrive in some of the world’s most extreme landscapes and climates. Often the pure landscapes melt into abstraction; the incredible patterns formed by glaciers, sand dunes, or rock canyons trick the eye – one could be looking at microscopic organisms as easily as the enormity of the Amazon basin from the air. And this brings home the ultimate harmony of everything interacting in nature, which forms the subtext to this show.


The time spent getting to know each unique habitat he visits allows Salgado a depth of understanding that shows through in his work. He is able to capture the characteristic behaviour of animals – a leopard, caught with the flash as he stoops for a night-time drink, looks up to catch our eye; a pair of albatrosses huddle affectionately on the exposed shores of the Falklands. Similarly, by spending time with and gaining the trust of indigenous peoples, Salgado is permitted intimate portraits of their everyday life, rituals and traditions. The short texts beside each picture serve to elucidate the encounter. We are introduced to the Korowai of West Papua living in tree houses, Ethiopian tribes who continue the practice of lip plates and scarification to decorate the body, the cattle camps of the Dinka in Southern Sudan, the habit of cleanliness among the Zo’é of Brazil and then in total contrast, the Nenets, herding their reindeer across the frozen wastes of Siberia.


It would be impossible to name one image that stands out; their sober monochrome belies the astonishing – almost unbelievable – diversity of nature, and how humans and animals have adapted to its idiosyncrasies. It is difficult to believe, for instance, that the ‘Baobab trees on a mushroom island in the Bay of Moramba, Madagascar’ have not been created from CGI graphics. Truly, reality is stranger than fiction. But for all its spectacular visual display, the message is clear: we should appreciate that these places are precious and vulnerable, and gaining respect for nature is vital for their survival. Salgado regards Genesis as his ‘love letter to the planet’, and in interview claimed that ‘if we isolate ourselves we are finished as a species. We and our planet are all tied together.’ His photographs perfectly capture both the weight of history – in the slow, measured tread of a giant tortoise in the Galapagos – and the fleeting, transitory nature of life, as a herd of zebra appear momentarily through a cloud of dust in the bright dawn sunlight of the Okavango Delta.



Genesis will be exhibition at The Natural History Museum 11 April – 8 September 2013.


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By Kitty Hudson