This exhibition’s introductory wall text should come with a booming, movie trailer-style voiceover: ‘A journey to the landscapes, animals, seascapes and peoples that have so far escaped the long reach of today’s world.’
Salgado has boldly gone where not many have before for this eight-year long project: indeed he’d be a real dinner-party bore with his tales of Patagonian ice fields, Madagascan islands and Congolese volcanoes. However, it’s the overblown title and nonsensical claims that he has captured untouched nature and original man that are far more irksome.
There’s no denying that the pictures themselves are magnificent and undoubtedly ‘epic’ as my earlier preview of the show described them (my word, quoted, now litters posters for the show). Rock formations, aerial jungle views and infinite ice floes bombard the viewer from panoramic, globetrotting black-and-white prints. Salgado, though, is an experienced photojournalist, not a naturalist, so these vistas are all carefully framed, edited, choreographed and even set up for effect, especially so in the case of a group of shamans in West Sumatra posing on a muted backdrop, or as in the close-up of five human-esque fingers of an iguana from the Galapágos Islands. Salgado’s background shooting in war zones amid scenes of human conflict and suffering makes these similarly solemn and portentous in tone.
‘Genesis’ does reach its self-proclaimed heights on occasion, depicting the clouds parting, God-like, above the Russian peaks of Kamchatka, but this pioneering photographic spirit has more than a whiff of the Victorian explorer mentality. The tribespeople Salgado shows in exotic or traditional dress only tell a part of their story, because they too are living in the twenty-first century, as much as Salgado might pretend otherwise. This primitive perspective is patronising in the extreme and is only partially dispelled by his sympathetic portraits of threatened Brazilian communities living in Pára around the Amazon basin. His home nation is his alma mater and where he’s done some of his best work, not least through the reforestation institute Salgado has created there, showing that he does have his sensitive side.