Gallery Sightings: A Black-and-White Eden

What: Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis

When: through January 11th, 2015

Where: the International Center of Photography (Midtown)

Admission: FREE for Macaulay students with a Cultural Passport

General Admission: $14

Students: $10

Photo via Elias Rovielo/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis fills both floors of the International Center of Photography with more than 200 breathtaking black-and-white photographs of the most pristine, untouched places from all corners of the Earth. His subject matter includes close-ups of wildlife, portraits of indigenous peoples, and aerial photographs of vast landscapes. One moment you are watching penguins jumping off an ice cliff, and the next you are staring into the eyes of cattle herders in Sudan.

The exhibit is divided into five parts, each covering a different region of the globe. The first section on the upper level, “Northern Spaces,” displays photographs from U.S. National Parks, Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. Also on the upper level, “Sanctuaries” shows images from the Galapagos, Madagascar, and Indonesia. The lower level is divided into three parts: Amazonia and the Pantanal wetlands, “Planet South” (Antarctica), and Africa.

The opening of the exhibit was well timed, two days before the People’s Climate March and the UN Climate Summit. This context is appropriate for an exhibit that infuses marvelous images with a fair dose of environmental activism. An informational panel that opens the show proclaims that “as well as displaying the beauty of nature, Genesis is a call to arms” against environmental ills such as pollution, deforestation, and the emission of greenhouse gases. A similar panel on the lower level sums up the show in a nutshell: Genesis is a “visual tribute to a fragile planet that we all have a duty to protect.”

Sebastião Salgado actively practices what he preaches. As a co-founder of the nonprofit Institutuo Terra, he has helped reforest and restore ecosystems in Southeastern Brazil. Genesis is Salgado’s third long-term photographic project, preceded by Workers (1993) and Migrations (2000), both of which also merge photography and activism with the aim of raising awareness of global issues.

Although shot in digital, Genesis stays true to the black-and-white palette that characterizes all of Salgado’s previous projects. Indeed, the digital medium is very fitting for Genesis, as the medium’s ultra-sharpness and fineness of detail gives the landscapes and subjects a certain fragility, which effectively underscores the exhibit’s appeal for environmental protection. Viewers may wonder why Salgado chose to forgo color. For example, wouldn’t the indigenous peoples of Brazil look much more striking in their original red, the color painted over their entire bodies? Color is left behind for a reason. By converting his images to black and white, Salgado focuses our attention on details and qualities that we might otherwise miss when distracted by bold colors. Without differences in color to hinder us, we are freed to compare the regular pattern on lizard scales to the scruffy, matted fur of a musk-ox. We see similarities between a chiseled glacier and the carved walls of a canyon. This play with texture and light, maintained throughout the whole show, keeps the uniform black-and-white style from becoming monotonous.

Salgado’s versatility in providing a variety of scales and angles in his shots also keeps the work fresh. On one wall we look up to see the wrinkly neck of a giant tortoise, and two steps away we gaze down upon a group of native Nenets sledding over a frozen river, black dots on a vast white expanse, tiny as ants. We can observe Salgado’s photographs endlessly, uncovering new details with each inspection. For instance, a Nenets’ thread-thin lasso silhouetted against the ice, frozen mid-throw, as if drawn by a fine pen.

Visually, this is a remarkable show. But the audience may nevertheless leave the exhibit unsatisfied. The show’s message of environmental protection is straightforward, perhaps too straightforward. This simple message, uniformly presented throughout the two floors, leaves us looking for something deeper, more complex, more nuanced, less certain. Salgado has clearly raised our awareness both of the beauty of nature and of the need to protect it. But–what next?

Nonetheless, this exhibit certainly deserves a visit. Macaulay students, perhaps, will disagree that Genesis is incomplete. While there, be sure to check out the International Center of Photography’s lecture series on art and climate change. Also, this will be the Center’s last show before it closes its midtown location in January 2015 and reopens downtown. Take this chance to see the ICP’s midtown space and its last hurrah before the move.

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