In a world where snap-happy Instagrammers are producing millions of edited photos daily (I admit it, guilty as charged), photography is becoming more and more popular, and, arguably, more and more ‘mainstream’. Sebastião Salgado’s exhibition at the Natural History Museum, however, is classic and revolutionary – a reassertion of what photography should be about.
Through the Natural History Museum’s cavernous hall, Salgado’s exhibition is tucked down a corridor – a spacious, minimalist room displaying photographs on recyclable structures.
Leila Wanick Salgado (Sebastião Salgado’s wife, who masterfully curated the exhibition) says Genesis is “a quest for the world as it was, as it was formed, as it evolved, as it existed for millennia before modern life accelerated and began distancing us from the very essence of our being.” It is far too easy to spend forever wandering round the exhibition, admiring the mosaic of the world it shows. Genesis combines art with natural history, geography and zoology in one rich display.
Salgado’s photos show landscape and natural life on an epic scale. In the vast and remote regions he studies, nature reigns supreme. Though all the photos are in black and white, they are not static in the slightest, and instead lend Salgado’s subjects majesty, and a sense of powerful silence.
He redefines high-definition, and the motion he captures is just as intense as any shot in an Attenborough documentary. Genesis displays not just brilliant photography, but incredible natural history. It shows the extremities and eccentricities of natural world in full force.
Salgado’s shots portray animal life in a wonderful way. (He often photographs from a balloon to avoid disturbing animals with unnatural noise of engines.) There are portraits of a mountain gorilla, leopard or tortoise staring accusingly and emotively at you for intruding into their isolated world. The glowing eyes of hundreds of caimans light up the surface of the Pantanal Wetlands in Brazil (which house over 10 million of the species in total), while in another photograph, the tail of a southern right whale emerges solitary and butterfly-like from the surface in the Valdés Peninsula, Argentina.
Along with animals, Salgado studies human tribes, showing our species’ affinity with nature. A Yali Huntsman blends in with ferns in West Papua, Indonesia – the sinews of his body contouring the lines of the leaves. A sledge stands against a blank and barren Siberian landscape, driven by a Nenet woman with three reindeer as companions. Salgado shows their habits, rituals and lifestyle – connecting the viewer in London with people from the outermost corners of the globe.
The landscapes in the exhibition are unrivalled. Salgado magnifies the tentacles of carnivorous plants in Venezula, and zooms out on the huge mountains in the Brooks Range, Alaska, which slide down to shelter a river, minute by comparison. He gives a bird’s-eye view of Disappointment River snaking through a mountain range in Canada, and the Perito Moreno Glacier swelling to blanket a landscape in white, and slice a river in half, in Argentina.
Genesis is not merely trying to convey nature’s beauty, however. Leila Wanick Salgado says it is “a call to arms”, and a “visual tribute to a fragile planet.” It forces us to think about climate change and our actions – not only our responsibility to protect the planet, but the guilt we all share for damaging it as we have thus far. For their part, the Salgados run Instituto Terra, a non-profit conservation organisation. But we all have a duty to not only conserve the natural world, but nurture it. As the Salgados say: “Governments can act to control… emissions, but only trees naturally absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.”
Genesis continues at the Natural History Museum until 8th September
With thanks to the Natural History Museum and theupcoming.co.uk for photographs.