Genesis, Sebastiao Salgado at the Natural History Museum

It is quite a coup for the Natural History Museum to have secured the world premier of Sebastiao Salgado’s Genesis. Ten years or more in the making, Genesis is an enormous collection of black and white images celebrating the landscape, wildlife and people of the wild places of the world. These wild places are predominantly the Antartic and the Southern Oceans, Amazonia, Africa, the open spaces of the Western US and Canada, and Siberia. No attempt to record such places can ever be comprehensive and Salgado makes no claims that his is. It is simply a series of beautiful places which have caught his imagination.

Sebastiao Salgado is a Brazilian photojournalist who made his name with some remarkable studies of workers in the third world. You may recall his iconic pictures of workers in an open cast gold mine using rickety ladders to ascend from and descend  into what looked like hell on earth.

©Sebastiao Salgado
©Sebastiao Salgado

We live in an age of course, where he have become saturated with images of every part of the world, however remote, and familiar with extraordinarily beautiful and creative wildlife series like Planet Earth. So the bar is being raised ever higher to create images that stand out and grab the imagination.

At his best, Salgado succeeds wonderfully in creating unique images which capture the essence of place in ways that might never be bettered. Personally I was particularly struck be his images from the Southern Oceans, such as the picture of albatrosses on Jason Island shown above. These were well worth the visit to the exhibition in their own right.

But the sheer quantity of pictures in the exhibition, and the mix of landscape, wildlife and portrait photography felt to me a little overwhelming, as if Salgado wanted to show me everything. I felt that some more judicial editing would have resulted in an exhibition with greater visual impact. As you would expect from a photographer of his quality, there are of course no ‘poor pictures’  to be removed. Each of them would stand alone as great images. But our ability to absorb and internalise images has capacity and by showing us more there is a risk of us remembering less.

Taschen have produced a door-stopper of a book to go with the exhibition. It too is of a very high quality, and with a price to match. But it may be that to absorb all of the images in the exhibition the ability to browse the book at leisure over a period of days or weeks will be more effective than the exhibition. But the exhibition will cost you a lot less!