Sebastiao Salgado needs little introduction to photographers. I believe he has earned a seat alongside Cartier-Bresson and Nachtwey as a truly significant practitioner of our times and, while the asking price is not cheap, his latest book Amazonia is a keeper.
And it is a challenger as well. My copy turned up a few weeks ago and, sitting on the coffee table at home, it has been viewed and studied regularly. The photographs are spectacular. The locations incredible. The people amazing. If you have a few bucks spare, this is a book to purchase and ponder.
Now, before you think I've become altruistic and environmentally conscious like Salgado, which of course I am, this isn't the challenge I'm talking about. Let me explain.
Friend and Better Photography contributor Michael Coyne and I have spirited discussions on a regular basis. Michael has spent his life working as a documentary photography, which in turn has chiseled the way he looks at photography, but far from being one-eyed, he is remarkably open to many genres and sees photography as a language which can be used in many different ways. When he asked if I had seen Amazonia, he was in no way challenging Salgado's credentials, but he did lead our conversation to the black and white reproductions in the book, specifically the rainforest scenes and the skies above.
And I understand why he is challenged.
If I were looking at the cover photo of the Amazonia as a competition judge, or many of the other landscapes within, I would mark them down because the skies are too strong, too contrasty and unrealistic. Wow, did I just write that about Sebastiao Salgado?
I have four or five of Salgado's books and the black and white reproductions have always been sensational, although thinking back, some of the skies in his book Genesis were a little overpowering as well. So is this a new style Salgado is investigating and how does it fit in with my view of the world? On the one hand, if these photographs are being presented by Salgado, who am I to say they are not up to scratch? There is no way these reproductions are accidents - it's an intentional aspect of his presentation.
And having never flown over the Amazon in an army helicopter, who am I to say that it doesn't really look like this? And while I find some of the skies too strong, I love the treatment of the rainforest below, bold and contrasty. The edge contrast is to die for!
But Salgado is a documentary photographer. Should he allow 'art' to interfere with the 'message'? Or does the art make us sit up and take notice? Is Salgado saying the world has changed, everyone knows the filters you can use on your smartphones, so it's time to revisit the language of documentary photography as well?
I don't have an answer, but since both Michael and I are enjoying our COVID-19 lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne, I'm sure there will be a further telephone conversation later this week. However, I have to admit the treatment is growing on me. Will documentary photographers lead the next school of art photography?
Peter EastwayFAIPP HonFAIPP HonFNZIPP APPL GMPhotogII MNZIPP Editor and Publisher
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