Photographers I Love: Sebastião Salgado

Photographers I Love: Sebastião Salgado

Are Sebastião Salgado’s photographs too beautiful for their subject matter?

I asked myself this while watching “The Salt of the Earth,” a documentary, about Sebastião Salgado. It’s a beautiful film (no surprise there as Wim Wenders was at the helm), but it left me filled with questions and doubts.

Here was a man who took stunning photographs of some of the most horrible moments in recent history. From the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s to the genocides in Serbia and Rwanda a decade later to burning oil fields at the end of the Kuwait-Irak war, his images are incredible. The black & white is rich and saturated; the skies are dramatic, and the people evoke biblical imagery of suffering and sacrifice. The images are heroic in scope, received numerous awards and praise, and found their way to art galleries and museums around the world.

Yet, the reality they show is one of despair and death.

While one can question the “beautification” of misery, we could argue that beauty makes people look at things they would usually avoid. As Sebastião Salgado said, “The beauty of the photographs lends dignity to the people in them.” He further explained, “I felt a compulsion to show that dignity is not an exclusive property of the rich countries of the north but exists all over the planet.”

Moreover, why should beauty and documentation be mutually exclusive? Beauty is a tool to reach people – look at the iconography of the crucifixion in Christianity: pain and death are sublimated to inspire piety. Beauty does not negate the problems. Sebastião Salgado uses it to show us the harsh reality too many people face in this world… Ultimately, as all artists, he does what he does and wouldn’t know (or want) to do it any other way!

“When you take a portrait, the shot is not yours alone — the person offers it to you.” Sebastião Salgado

African mother holding her baby against a chest in a refugee camp
A lone worker walks among burning oil fields in the Kuwaiti desert

Sebastião Salgado was born in 1944 in Brazil and grew up on his family’s cattle ranch. He left his remote childhood home to study macroeconomics in ever-expanding São Paulo. Embroiled in the fight against the military dictatorship, he and his wife, Lélia, fled the country and settled in a life of exile in Paris, France. Sebastião Salgado started working as an economist for the International Coffee Organization. It was during his trips to document coffee farmers in Africa that he took some of his first photographs (using his wife’s camera that he had borrowed for the occasion!). What started as a simple tool to help in his work soon took over his life. In 1973, he left a promising career as an economist and began working as a freelance photojournalist and documentarian.

Sebastião Salgado mostly worked on long-term self-assigned projects, often documenting the aftermath of war, or focusing his lens on globalization and its consequences (migration, urbanization, working conditions…). He worked for news organizations and NGOs alike, always championing social justice. His training as an economist helped him frame his work in a larger narrative, taking into account the politics and sociology of the situation. But he chafes at the limitations being called a “social photographer” or even a “photojournalist” brings. For Sebastião Salgado, photography is “[his] language, [his] life and [his] way of going about and doing things.”

“You photograph with all your ideology.” Sebastião Salgado

For his series “Gold,” he spent time in an open air-gold mine in Brazil where thousands of men toiled in horrendous conditions. His photographs bear witness to the folly of gold: people left everything and ended up working in dangerous conditions in the hope of striking it rich with a crack of their pickaxes. The images of mud-covered men toiling on the flank of a mountain look almost biblical. You might as well be looking at ancient Egyptians building the pyramids.

Sebastião Salgado’s choice to shoot in black and white comes from his early photos taken in Africa as an economist. They were in color, but he felt color was distracting from the core information he had tried to capture. I can see that – B&W eliminates superfluous details and helps us focus on what truly matter: someone’s look, an object, the scope of a landscape… Black and white is also timeless, which makes sense for Salgado’s work as it is often linked to a larger, longer story. His series on migrants talks about modern-day workers but evokes the 19th-century industrial revolution, which marks the beginning of today’s reality.

An African family walking in the desert in search of food and help

After years of documenting man’s cruelty, Sebastião Salgado eventually burned out, depleted after witnessing so much misery. He changed course and left wars and conflicts behind to document earth’s beauty and diversity, going back to nature to cleanse himself of man’s sins. For “Genesis,” he traveled to 32 countries over 8 years, from the Artic Circle to New Guinea and the Amazonian jungle. His focus is nature and man’s resilience against all odds. Images of pristine lands and people who live in accordance with their surroundings offer us inspiration and hope.

While always deeply concerned with people’s fate, his work on “Genesis” broadened his preoccupation. “Today I think of the other species too – they are as important as my own. The behavior of our species, what we do to nature, to other species, to each other, is awful, so I have the same skepticism about us that I always had.”

The Brazilian military regime having made way to democracy, Sebastião Salgado returned to his home country. There, he decided to take care of his family farm which had been mismanaged for decades. The lush vegetation of his youth was now an empty wasteland. He and his wife set out to rebuild the original ecosystem, planting thousands of trees and encouraging animals and birds to come back. They turned their 17,000 acres into a nature preserve and created the Instituto Terra, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforestation, conservation and environmental education.

Today, his environmental local work goes hand in hand with his photography work. There’s something admirable about the arc of his life. He credits growing up in nature for his appreciation for light and attention to detail. After years of documenting the world in all its folly and chaos, he’s again on his family land, bringing it (and himself) back to life. Man and nature, life and death, hope and despair… they are all part of him.   

Amazonian indigenous woman with a traditional headdress

© Sebastião Salgado

Disclaimer: Aurelie’s Gallery does not represent Sebastião Salgado. My “Photographers I love” series is purely for inspiration and to encourage discussion.

Photographers I Love: Nan Goldin

Photographers I Love: Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin’s photographs are not always easy to face. They show hardship, violence and pain. But they also, and more importantly, show life – the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.

Nan Goldin grew up near Boston in the 1950s. The Norman Rockwell image of suburban middle-class life imploded when her older sister committed suicide when Goldin was 11. Her sister wanted to live freely, but the loosening of social mores and the sexual revolution the pill introduced in the 60s hadn’t happened yet. Nan Goldin is a product of the liberation her sister never saw.

She started documenting her friends as a teenager, capturing unfiltered moments of intimacy and vulnerability. She befriended people in the LGBTQ+ community and ended up, a few years later, documenting the desolation the AIDS crisis brought to her friends.

Most recently, while documenting the opioid crisis that has been ravaging the US, Nan Golding became a vocal opponent to the Sackler family and their company, Purdue, which produced and pushed Oxycontin.

She targeted museums and universities that accepted their money and shed light on the ugly side of philanthropy. Nan Goldin’s activism bore fruit: in December 2021, the Met Museum in New York removed the Sackler name from its exhibition halls.

Glass table in a living room, covered with drug paraphernalia
A man dragging on a cigarette while his girlfriend watches him

Her interest in people on the fringe stemmed from her teenage rebellion and the cultural environment of the time. She saw junkies as romantic figures but eventually cut through the haze and saw them for what they were – tragic figures, people lost to forces stronger and darker than themselves.

Nan Goldin often explained that her photographs are like her own private diary, just one made public. They are her way to celebrate and remember her friends when so many of them have passed away or were never recognized by society. Her work is about memory, first and foremost.

Nan Goldin doesn’t shy away from the pain that sometimes comes with being alive. I remember her show at MoMA and seeing her (in)famous self-portrait where you see her with a black eye after an argument with her boyfriend. I find the image difficult to look at – the idea of getting punched in the face by the person I love is pretty terrifying for me – but there she stood, upright and strong, flaunting expectations of decorum or victimhood.

Her photographs are very intimate and raise at time question about voyeurism. I don’t think anyone can accuse Nan Goldin of being a voyeur – these are her people, her friends, her tribe. She shares these moments with them, lives their pain and joy.

But what about the people looking at these private moments? What about us, looking at these photographs hanging on a wall of a gallery or museum? Aren’t we voyeurs?

© Nan Goldin

Disclaimer: Aurelie’s Gallery does not represent Nan Goldin. My “Photographers I love” series is purely for inspiration and to encourage discussion.

Young man sitting by a pool
A young man laying on the trunck of a convertible car watching a movie at a drive-in, while his friends sit in the car

Photographers I Love: William Eggleston

Photographers I Love: William Eggleston

William Eggleston is credited with making color photography a legitimate art form. To understand this, we need to put him back in his historical context, the late 1960s.

Back then, most of the art world was struggling with accepting photography itself as art. Unlike traditional mediums like paintings or sculptures, photographs can be reproduced, which made them less “valuable” to traditionalists.

Even when people considered photography an art form, they would often draw the line at color photography, which was seen as too commercial and pedestrian to be taken seriously.

William Eggleston changed all that.

Nothing in his upbringing marked him as a revolutionary… but you always have to watch out for the quiet ones!

Born in 1939, Eggleston grew up in the South in an affluent family. While he attended a series of private schools, he never graduated from any of them. He was interested in arts and when a friend gave him a camera, he latched on to it.

William Eggleston started to experiment with black and white before moving to color in the mid-60s. His early influences were Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Walker Evans, all remarkable photographers with an uncanny talent to capture beauty in the most mundane settings. Eggleston also focused his lens on everyday moments. His sense of composition and color brings an unexpected power to his seemingly simple images.

His choice to shoot in color was a natural one for him. Developing on his own as an artist far from the art world, he approached color photography with no preconceived notion that it was not a “proper” medium. Color film was easily attainable and captured the world the way he saw it – that was enough for him. As he later remarked, “Not intending to make any particular comment about whether it was good or bad or whether I liked it or not. It was just there, and I was interested in it.”

Line cook on a wall phone in a hallway
Cracked red ceiling with a bare bulb in the middle of it

In the early 70s, William Eggleston discovered dye-transfer printing, which was only used for commercial photography, or by everyday people snapping away during their vacations. It quickly became his favored printing method as it gave his prints saturated and vibrant colors.

The most famous example of this is his 1973 image titled, The Red Ceiling. William Eggleston later noted that only dye-transfer printing truly represented his vision. Any other printing lacked depth and intensity. He said, “The Red Ceiling is so powerful, that in fact I’ve never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction. When you look at the dye [print] it is like red blood that’s wet on the wall.”

Parked car against a brick wall

In 1976, MoMA in New York gave him a show. Although it was not the first time the museum had exhibited color photographs, Eggleston’s show created quite a stir. The venerable Ansel Adams, one of the (grand) fathers of photography, notably expressed his distress at seeing MoMA celebrating this kind of work.

The show created such a stir that it is still viewed to this day as a watershed moment. William Eggleston broke open the door and brought color photography to one of the most influential art institutions in the world. Despite the controversy, the exhibit was a success and color photography was never looked down again.

© William Eggleston

Disclaimer: Aurelie’s Gallery does not represent William Eggleston. My “Photographers I love” series is purely for inspiration and to encourage discussion.