Photographer Sebastião Salgado has traveled the world with his camera for the past forty years, documenting its beauty and its horror, its feats and its failures. He is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and one of the foremost social documentary photographers of our time. Salgado imbues power into the landscapes, people and animals he captures, elevating them to a near-sacred level. His images manage to be both quietly dignified and biblically grand at the same time.
The current exhibition of his work at Beetles + Huxley offers selections from every part of his career, from photographs taken in the 1980s in Brazil and Ethiopia to selections from his recent extensive survey of climate change around the globe.
His portraits of nature evidence its epic power and immensity. Southern Right Whale, Patagonia, Argentina (2004) captures a the tail of a whale from very close range. With the sheen of water rushing over its smooth surface, it almost looks like two massive ocean swells. Confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rovers, Arizona, USA (2010) shows the rivers as small snakes cutting through the land, a broad view of striped canyons, and a sky filled with an endless field of clouds. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska (2009) was shot from a similar perspective as the last, but at a cant, resulting in the clouds and peaks stretching infinitely. Bighorn Creek, Kluane National Park, Canada (2011) depicts the valley between two mountains, with snow creating mesmerizing veins of inky black and bright white, like zebra stripes.
Despite the majesty of his images, Salgado doesn’t glorify the world. He shows its capacity for darkness and neglect, too, by portraying the utter despondency on the faces of Ethiopian citizens in the Korem refugee camp during the 1980s famine. Or as in Desert Hell, Kuwait (1991), which captures workers struggling with a spurting oil well, he presents a reminder of the Oil Wars and our propensity for greed. Salgado’s well-known photographs of the goldmine workers in Serra Pelada, Brazil, are also included, another example of humans prodding the earth for assets.
Salgado shows the world as vast, beautiful and mysterious, more extraordinary than any place created in fantasy or fiction. Viewing his work is a way to alight from our individual lives and enter into a truly collective realm.
Sebastião Salgado is on view at Beetles + Huxley, London, Oct. 8th–Nov. 7th, 2014.