Sebastiao Salgado: The Unfiltered Lens
Sunday Times, 03 March 2013
In the rainforest everything is backlit. The light streams towards you, silhouetting the trees. Also the Brazilian sun burns, so children are given broad-brimmed hats. They grow up always looking from shadow into light.
“I realised recently that most of my photographs are shot against the light,” says Sebastião Salgado, “and that is why. I was raised in the shadows. The sun injured my nose and it was necessary to have a hat, so everything came to me from light into shadow.”
It takes me about 40 minutes to tune into the cadences of his English. This is, after all, his fourth language, after Portuguese, Spanish and French. “I have a big excitement for the greys. I luuuurve the greys!” he cries, when explaining why he shoots only in black and white.
When I do tune in, his wide-eyed passion, his determination to explain himself, make his strange English seem not comical but deliriously expressive. This seems to extend to his spelling. Before our meeting, I noticed on his website that one of his books was called The Craddle of Inequality. Anyway, he may be the greatest photographer alive so, frankly, he can speak how the hell he likes and “craddle” is OK by me. The only point that matters is that he talks as he shoots: ecstatically.
“The big privilege of photography is to go where you like; you are a free bird, you are alone in this trance. When you really get inside something, that is part of the trance. It is total joy.”
Before he went digital — a big crisis in his life, to which I shall return — he used to close his eyes and sing while changing films.
“It was a way to maintain this trance. I did not want to break my concentration.”
One assistant resigned because the job seemed to consist mostly of waiting for an entranced Salgado. He laughs at the memory.
Colour itself was a kind of lie. ‘When I saw my colour picture, I was much more interested in the colour than in the personality of the person
“He was so upset after two or three hours working with me. He said it was like to see grow the grass…”
He is perfectly bald, has just turned 69, is fiercely energetic — at times I feel I am running after a bus I can’t quite catch — and very emotional. Several times he clasps my hands in both of his in gratitude and, I confess, we hug when we part — we had shared a bottle of “nice light lunch wine”.
We are sitting at a table in a basement in Paris. Around us are two giant printers, huge boxes of paper and assorted technicians who come and go. There are also computers, machines that Salgado never touches. “I cannot turn on a computer, I cannot send email. I don’t bring computers when I travel, I don’t know how to use them, I don’t bring hard disks…”
But he likes to know it’s all there, working away to realise what he saw through his lenses. Before we sit down, he takes me round the rooms explaining all this stuff. But since he doesn’t understand the technology and I don’t yet understand his English, this is pretty much “like to see grow the grass”.
Upstairs are the offices of Amazonas Images, his photographic agency, which he runs with his wife, Lélia Wanick. They have been together almost 50 years and he mentions her every few minutes. “Everything we did in life we did together,” he says, “Bryan, you must mention her in your piece. She does so much.”
Lélia found this building on a canal-side road. A mile or so from the Gare du Nord, it is in what used to be a bad area. This basement was a coal cellar. Salgado didn’t get it, but Lélia, an architect, turned the place into a very simple, beautiful series of spaces. She’s upstairs, working at his book designs and, with two other women, looking through photographs — the great German director Wim Wenders is making a film based on Salgado’s latest book, Genesis, and he wanted some childhood shots. One of their sons is working with Wenders; the other, who was born with Down’s syndrome, is a designer.
To explain. Salgado’s pictures are among the most influential of our time. In particular, his staggering shots of the Serra Pelada goldmine in Brazil, in which thousands of workers both assault the earth and become one with it, have defined, more vividly than any written account, the effect of industrialisation on the Third World. He has also photographed famines, migrations, the entire global effort of human survival beneath the crushing burden of modernity. “The first big industrial revolution that started in England is finishing now,” he explains, “and we are starting a new age of intelligent machine. And I go round this planet to do a kind of archeology of that time.”
But Genesis is something new, something quite different. Stylistically and conceptually it is a new direction. First, you have to understand the long, hard and rocky road he had to walk to get here because, thanks to 9/11 and the near collapse of his own body, he very nearly didn’t.
In particular, his staggering shots of the Serra Pelada goldmine in Brazil, in which thousands of workers both assault the earth and become one with it, have defined, more vividly than any written account, the effect of industrialisation on the Third World
He was born in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, the only boy among eight children.
“Yes! Seven sisters! The only men in my family were my father and myself.”
This may explain why he is such a good, devoted husband to Lélia; he gets women, he had no choice. They had a farm or, rather, an estate on which lived 35 other families. This makes them sound rich, but he insists they weren’t. The Brazilian economy was a mess and, even with all their cattle, the Salgados lived a life of subsistence — making their own clothes and machetes for cutting the sugar cane. But they had the land, and it was that land that was to define the latter part of Salgado’s career — to, in fact, save him.
His adolescence and his move to a school in the city of Vitoria in 1960 coincided with the start of Brazil’s industrialisation. Factories — notably car plants — were being built and the great migration from country to city had begun. The population of Vitoria exploded.
He studied economics at university and became immersed in politics, a dangerous game in any Latin American country at the time. There was a military coup in 1964 and a further coup within a coup in 1968. Students were being tortured and killed. Anti-government groups were smuggling some to Uruguay and from there to Europe, usually France. Before he became a target, Salgado left Brazil for France with Lélia. He studied for his doctorate, then worked for a while in London for a coffee organisation, which meant he had to travel to Africa. His future seemed pretty clear until Lélia lent him a camera to go on one of his trips to Africa. It was a good camera — a Pentax Spotmatic with a 50mm lens, one of the best of the time. Salgado fell at once into the trance state that was to dominate the rest of his life.
“My pictures gave me 10 times more pleasure than the reports I was working on. To be a photographer was, for me, an incredible way to express myself, an incredible way to the see the world from another point.”
Supported by Lélia’s architecture and some savings from his job, he returned to Paris in 1973 and took a year off to become a pro. His timing was impeccable. It was a golden age for magazines in France and, just by knocking on doors, he found work, good work that took him back to Africa. He went on to work at some of the big photo agencies — Sigma, Gamma and Magnum. At the latter he met the greatest snapper of them all, Henri Cartier-Bresson. “We were very good friends. We were completely different photographers but we had one thing in common — we went to the planet to see the planet.”
Bill Brandt seems to be the photographer he most admires — “incredible, incredible” — and, in trying to explain this, he says something that stuns me into silence.
“But I tell you, for me, each photographer brings his own light from when he was a kid — in this fraction of a second when you freeze reality, you also freeze all this background. You materialise who you are.”
This is why if you give the same camera to two different people and ask them to shoot the same scene, something different will always emerge. Personality seeps into the mechanism. Magical thinking maybe, but true.
He gave up colour photography for one technical reason — he hated slides. Before colour negative film became commonplace, everybody used slides. This meant no contact sheets, which displayed the shots in order on a single paper.
“I needed the contact sheets so I could read my stories. With slides it was not possible to have my stories, it break my sequence.”
He also didn’t believe in the colours produced by film — “I never see this red in my life.” Colour itself was a kind of lie. “It was a huge exaggeration — when I saw my colour picture, I was much more interested in the colour than in the personality or dignity of the person. How can I go to a person and make them my story, and I don’t feel the story in my photographs? Of course, black and white is an abstraction, but from the brightest white to the darkest black what you have is greys, and these greys are what I had in my mind when I took the pictures.”
But I tell you, for me, each photographer brings his own light from when he was a kid — in this fraction of a second when you freeze reality, you also freeze all this background. You materialise who you are
Dignity is the key word. Salgado uses monochrome to monumentalise his people and his places. It also emphasises his most characteristic stylistic effect — his use of all-over pattern to tie an image together. I point this out and he looks puzzled — he does not at first understand the word “pattern” — but then ecstatic.
“That is fabulous, you are the first one to tell me this, Bryan. I can link everything with pattern, I can tell my story… the world is pattern.”
One other point about his technique that will startle your average snapper is that he never uses filters. Every book, every expert, will tell you that you must use filters, especially for skies.
“I want the light on my lens, the filter gets in the way. If you get the exposure right, you don’t need filters.”
His insistence on going to the entire planet was, by the late 1990s, taking its toll. The crisis that ensued was twofold. First, he was ill — it was some kind of auto-immune disease. His doctor told him he was being attacked “by his own bacteria”; the effects were multiple and gruesome. And secondly, his film was being ruined in airports. After 9/11 it became impossible to talk the authorities into letting him take his cases, containing hundreds of rolls of film, through without being x-rayed. The signs say the machines do not affect film, but they do and if, like Salgado, you pass through six or seven airports on a trip, the effect is catastrophic — “The grain,” he says, “loses its structure.” He loves grain almost as much as he loves Lélia.
He was ready to give up photography, but he was saved by two things. In the early 1990s, he was bequeathed the farm in Brazil. With Lélia he planted 1.5m trees and started a business selling seedlings. Mining and paper companies in Brazil have to replace rainforest species and they could provide them. After a decade it became clear that the project had worked.
“I didn’t believe it was possible to grow anything, the land was dead, but the trees were coming back and the birds, the animals, the water. It was an incredible pleasure to do this. I had lost faith and I had stopped doing photography, but when this forest came back to life my wish was to do something linked to nature and came to this idea to go and shoot the pristine world. Who knows? If pictures can help us to come back to our planet and remember we are animals like other animals.”
Then he says something else that stops me in my tracks.
“You know people will tell you we are the only rational animal. That’s not true. Each animal has personality and rationality. And I used to think landscape was fixed and dead, but it isn’t, it’s alive.”
He loves grain almost as much as he loves Lélia
Meanwhile, he was saved from the x-ray machines by the discovery that digital cameras could match film for quality. He left behind his Leicas and medium-format Pentaxes and switched to some surprisingly modest Canons. These take colour pictures that are later converted to black and white, but if he does look at the screen on the back — he says he never does — the cameras are set up so he sees only black and white. The one remaining problem — the flatness of digital — is overcome by the ability of his tech assistants to add his beloved grain by using software to mimic Kodak Tri X, the greatest of all black-and-white films, and the one he almost always used.
And so the greatest documenter of the grim last decades of the industrial revolution has gone back to the pristine planet and those of its inhabitants who live as they have always lived. It shows, he says, that we can be saved from our industrial sins and that rationality is not a human monopoly. “Mountains are alive like we are alive. I am not saying the modern world is good or bad, it is our world. We can rebuild what we destroyed. We must become strong again and we are animals, we must mix with the others. We must imagine a bit…”
He takes me to a local restaurant — “very ugly, but very good food” — and, as we leave the office he puts on a broad-brimmed fedora.
“My head gets cold.”
But I see him in a very hot country, a little Brazilian boy looking out from the shadow of his hat into the heart of light, a boy who would learn one day to materialise who he was, who we are.