I visited this photographic exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum several weeks ago but my life has truly been chaotic since then. I’ve been unable to get my brain and spare time into a space where I felt able to write much at all. So here we go.
Sebastião Salgado is a well-respected travelling photojournalist who has spent the last couple of decades exploring the world’s biodiversity hotspots in order to highlight the places on earth that are still “untouched” and “pristine”. This is a review of his ‘Genesis’ exhibition currently showing a t the NHM, until 8th September.
Obviously I can’t afford to license Salgado’s images for this review but I thought I’d doctor some of my own to imitate the kind of stuff you’ll see there. It’s never as thoughtful and almost never as accomplished but it was fun to compile!
Now, down to business. Obviously you have to take Salgado’s starting point with a truly enormous pinch of salt. I find it hard to believe that many, if any places still exist that are demonstrably untouched by human intervention. Sealed caves, perhaps, but certainly not any surface habitat. Nevertheless the posters for the exhibition looked impressive and I work in the museum so what the hell, worth a look.
It is an astonishing collection. Really. I found a very large proportion of the prints, often blown up to dominant sizes, to be visually arresting and thought provoking. But why? There are 200 prints from just under a decade’s work in destinations as varied as Papua New Guinea and Utah. Humans, flora, fauna, mountains, jungle, seascapes, all are represented at some point. Represented as either deep within or skirting the edge of the ‘wild’. The entire show is a procession of stunning black and white images that might or might not be capturing one of those elusive ‘wild’ moments. Salgado actually attempts to try and reconnect urbanites to the natural world.
But I didn’t find that to be my impression. Instead I found myself wondering at the natural world, just as I would reading National Geographic or strolling through a park. You don’t reconnect at all, you are just a voyeur. I’ve never really felt this imposed connection beside the occasional spark of shock within myself at some totally random sight or interaction. It’s personal and it can’t be imposed.
In fact my favourite aspect of the exhibition was how Salgado treats relatively mundane views. His unusual cropping and high-contrast photography twists perspectives and turns nature into an abstract and confusing spectacle. Is that a cliff or a towering wave? Am I looking into a valley or up a mountain? Just what kind of animal is that the skin of, in close-up? Are those trees or just weird bushes? I have spoken to other people who visited this show and they found it overly staged. They find the contrast unnatural and the positioning of the animals and people just too weird.
Well I have to agree that some shots must have taken an awfully large number of hours of sitting and waiting to get the perfect view but I don’t think that’s really a valid criticism to level at the images themselves. Not in this exhibition. If the intention was always to provide a spectacle then you can hardly complain that Salgado definitively provides one. During my visit the other viewers were chattering amongst themselves over almost every shot. Not in that infuriating ‘I know a LOT about photography and nature’ way but with a sense of genuine and undisguised interest. It’s just a shame that that interest cannot be sated by the descriptions and labelling.
As you might have guessed I do have some issues with Genesis. The premise is flawed but Salgado admits he never wanted to provoke debate. Whatever that means. No, as I’ve said he just wanted to supply a carronade-burst of very lovely images. He is very honest on that front. It’s the curation that I find pretty appalling. The NHM puts on the Veolia Environmental Services Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition every year (funnily enough) but Salgado’s Genesis is in a different and vastly inferior league in terms of insight and curation. In the former you get a description of the lengths taken to capture the shot, as well as properly fascinating botanical or zoological science. Instead Salgado’s Genesis is curated by his wife Leila. That needn’t necessarily be a bad thing but she seems to have put in very little work beyond selecting and positioning the images. Staging a photographic exhibition in a national natural history museum, at £10 per ticket, should demand at least a modicum of scientific insight to the subjects of some of the photographs. But no. We are left with what amounts to the wanton ejaculation of a travel photographer. Albeit a very fine travel photographer. It feels a lot like nobody wanted to spend a few bob on describing the things we are seeing. The images are supposed to stand testament to their subject. But then why bother with the half-hearted interpretation panels at all? Why not just put a simple date/place format below each and have done with it? Too many times I searched in vain for more information only to get either a woefully inadequate sentence or an exact repetition of another label. This just isn’t good enough for an institution like the NHM.
Nevertheless the images are astonishing and really are the kinds of things that most travellers want to see on their own adventures. Salgado is one of those people who can honestly say ‘Been there, done that, took the picture’ – and he has done it in a lot of style. Genesis is well worth a visit to see a different style of travel photography and to explore vicariously, just don’t expect to be educated because you will definitely leave with more questions than answers. But surely the subjects and landscapes are still out there, right? Maybe we, and I, just need to go and find the answers ourselves instead of being spoon-fed and turned into lazy-ass culture vultures picking off of photographs instead of turning that ‘wilderness’ into something a bit more ‘known’. This is a very strong art photography exhibition, I just wish it and the NHM had dropped the pretence of it being in some way scientific rather than a vehicle for Salgado himself.