Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Note on Salgado's Genesis

Inspired by this "book review" from Ming (how can you review a photography monograph without talking about the pictures?) I decided to go look at Genesis to see if Ming's complaint about too many pictures is right.

In a way it is. There's a hell of a lot of pictures in this thing. Lots of repetition, in a sense. It just goes on and on.

If we suppose that Salgado has some idea about what he's doing, we wonder if there is a reason for this, and after a moment it comes to us. He's showing us the world, or at any rate a good sample of it. The world, it turns out, is big, and contains a lot of things. Salgado's point is that there are a hell of a lot of pictures in this book, but at the same time not nearly enough. It comes home to us, if we're paying attention, that he is in fact showing us the thinnest sliver. A half-dozen or so tribes of more or less pristine peoples. A whole lot of penguins, but not nearly all of them. A few pieces of ice. A selection of rivers, mesas, valleys, plains. And so on.

There's an enormous amount of material spanning the globe, and it all looks similar, and yet subtly different, and it's all just a tiny slice in the end. Primitive tribes look a lot alike, massed animals look a lot alike. Land looks similar to other land, water looks similar to other water. And yet, everywhere you go, there are differences. This tribe's men wrap their penis this way, the other tribe's another, and this lot lives in cold places so they cover up.

There are elements in here of The Family of Man, in the effort to simply catalog a lot of material. The two shows would work very well together. And would be inconceivably vast for the instagram generation, nobody under 40 would make it through alive.

The power of repetition and bulk to make a point. It would not have occurred to me, possibly because I would never have the will to take so many pictures.

Notably, a lot of the pictures don't really look like Salgado. There's a ton of purely documentary material, and a surprising number of pictures in which the subject is largely lost against the background (which, I assume, is again the point -- in the real world leopards and native peoples are often making a bit of an effort not to stand out, so the figure-to-ground trope of two-dimensional art is in fact wrong).

I will go so far as to say that this isn't a monograph in the traditional sense. There's simply not enough visual connective tissue. While the book flows, and pictures do relate visually to one another, there is so much visual variety that the cohesiveness the book has is largely not visual. It's conceptual. This group of ten landscapes flows, but then we're in to a bunch of documentary of a tribe (which also flows) and then we're on to massed penguins, and so on. The concept hooks it all together beautifully, but the graphical connections we expect from a monograph are confined to short sequences within the book.

Anyways. Not a review. A review would be quite large, I think, and you'd still have to pick one angle of attack or another of many possibilities. I had 30 minutes to deploy my "contemplative" method, and that's what came out. A couple of notes, and an overall flavor.

It's a good book, but not one I would choose to own. It's simply too big, and the point it's making isn't worth the space. To me. Your mileage, as the say, may vary.


  1. This book has a different perspective on Salgado. I saw it at the Museum of Design in London and ordered it. I think you would find interesting how the idea of concepts and photography intertwine.

    The Documentary Impulse
    by Stuart Franklin

    I think I live my life using some form of the "contemplative" method, or maybe I am just lazy!

  2. I bought Genesis just 10 days ago. Salgado says there is still a beautiful wolrd out there, and here's some of it. The pictures are very beautiful, I like the b/w rendering different from the usual NatGeo way. I'm an happy camper.