- A Different Light: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado by Parvati Nair
It has often been said that photography is a privileged Brazilian cultural genre because Dom Pedro II (1825-91; reigned 1831-89) was that country's first photographer and gave the art form his royal patronage. Some of the first landscape photography in Brazil bears Dom Pedro II's name. The spectacular development of Brazil in the twentieth century, moreover, led many people to record it photographically, and one of the interesting dimensions of Brazilian photography are foreigners who, after arriving in Brazil, took to photograph it, whether only circumstantial visitors (Claude Lévi-Strauss, who photographed São Paulo but then went on to photograph indigenous culture as part of his formative work in anthropology in Brazil) or whether immigrant residents, such as Hildegaard Rosenthal, photographed the dynamic modernism of São Paulo in only the late 1930s or Madalena Schwartz, who photographed most of what was important in Brazil for fifty years beginning in the 1950s, although she is most remembered for her spectacular portrait photography, particularly of marginal groups like cabaret performers, transvestites and other denizens of the night. These non-native Brazilian photographers stand alongside important Brazilian-born artists such as Alice Brill, Cássio Vasconcellos, Tatiana Cardeal, Cristiano Mascaro, Rogério Assis, Ricardo Funari, Marcelo Soubhia, Marc Ferrez.
However, as important as the work of these photographers and others is, none has attracted the international attention that has accrued to Sebastião Salgado, whose work has been exhibited in the most prestigious venues (a retrospective of his work inaugurated the new facilities of the International Center of Photography in 2001). Working in large-to-enormous formats and only in black-and-white, Salgado, although he has emphasized images from his native Brazil, has also worked horizontally across themes that involve marginal or subaltern social subjects across the global. Thus, if there is a nucleus of his work dealing with migrant workers in Brazil, including other works of the most menial of occupations, Salgado engages in a cross-societal cut to examine similar spheres of workers in (predominantly) so-called Third World countries. This is [End Page 288] true of his work on children, women, the landless, internal migrants and the nationless.
The result are enormous photographic canvasses that appear designed to overwhelm the privileged spectator, not only the spectator privileged to be able to view photography, but the spectator privileged to have access to the sort of photographic display Salgado's work requires. Moreover, such a spectator must be willing to experience the sense of engulfment by the sociohistorical reality these photographs represent, in their often larger-than-life format, their expropriation of the total exhibit environment, their wrap-around and, ultimately, totally enveloping quality. The sensation for spectators is one of shrinkage, as they must sense how gruesome these social realities are alongside bourgeois urban existence.
Nair speaks of the luminosity of Salgado's work, and part of their effectiveness is the scrupulous attention to photographic detail and setting, the precision of the image, and the inescapability of the aesthetic climate they create. Yet, these are also photographs that play with rhetoric features of sentimentality and perhaps even the exploitation of spectator guilt. Although Nair works within the framework of identifying Salgado as the "greatest documentary photographer of our time," she also acknowledges the criticisms his work has garnered for an alleged aestheticization of misery, of a certain "adorabilization" of the most disadvantaged social subjects such as children and the most exploited of women (well, almost, since Salgado appears never to have worked the vast vein of prostitution in Brazil and elsewhere).
Nair's study is excellent because of its documentary quality. She interviews Salgado and his wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado, as to their projects and the contexts of their work and she is careful to discuss in depth the controversies surrounding his work and the museological issues associated with the privileged exhibition of misery and poverty. Because it is so meticulously documented, the reader has access to an...