It’s no secret that a Sebastio Salgado exhibition converted me to take photography seriously in my late teens. In classrooms over the years I’ve heard his compassion labelled as phony, that his work is “too good” or has such mass appeal that it reduces the subject matter to trivia, and I think: you people are fucking idiots. The world would be a much better place if there were more Salgados, or Bonos or Peter Gabriels, or Taryn Simon or W. Eugene Smith, or other artists of conscience. Without artists of conscience you are left with only mundane navel gazers, or sarcastic punks, or commercial pop products.
A more recent controversy is the appearance of his latest images. Salgado used to work with large format film cameras and, for the recent “Genesis” book, switched to a modified 1DS Mk 3 DSLR. The new work has an HDR like feel, probably processed by Nik Software’s HDR Efx Pro and Silver EFX Pro. Within the program there is a function called “Tone Mapping” which allows for a HDR-like effect on a single image, as opposed to multiple exposures smooshed into one; it also adds grain deliberately, to make the image “hang together” more.
On a recent podcast Brooks Jensen of Lenswork describes the grain as “sandpaper on his eyes” and presumes that the images are shot 35mm, because he can’t imagine why anyone would shoot a grainy landscape (he understands grain as part of the street photography aesthetic). I love Brooks and consider him a wise grandfather of art photography, and can understand disliking a change in an artist’s style- Peter Jackson’s recent Hobbit movies have been released in a fast frame rate version that no one liked, and in the “Desolation of Smaug” the adoption of “action cameras” in the river scene was an obvious flaw where I could see pixelly water very clearly. Nothing like pixels in your fantasy film. But we can’t expect artists to adhere to our set-in-stone ideas of aesthetics. Salgado made grainy landscapes because he wanted to, and probably wanted to have his Genesis project have a similar look image-to-image, and not because he was following in the tradition of Ansel Adams. I really don’t know, since I don’t have Salgado’s phone number, but I do recognize a particular style (tone mapping) and knowing that allows a more informed opinion than “I guess it’s 35mm, but why I don’t know, I just don’t like it.”