Salgado's Genesis and Grain
The photographic world has been abuzz now for some time about the new Sabastião Salgado book Genesis. I've read a number of glowing reviews; Salgado is an important photographer; this appears to be one of those books that one simply has to have on the shelf; so I purchased it. Glad I did, but . . .
I was a bit disappointed in the images, to be honest. Love the compositions; love the sense of light he consistently masters; as a book and collection of images, it lives up to its hype. However, because he uses 35mm cameras and fast films, the visibly large globs of grain in image after image cannot help but diminish my appreciation of the project. I just can't get past the idea that had the images been possible without that grittiness of the film grain, the experience of viewing the images would have been much more rewarding. Probably just my prejudice about landscape photography, but I'll bet some of you had the same observation.
What's particularly interesting about this is a sort of "truth in advertising" issue. Here is an image from one of the many Internet sites where you can see images from this book. I picked this one at random, but I could have picked from almost any image in the book.
Looks great, doesn't it? Beautiful light, sweet composition, a successful photograph on almost every level — including, in this screen presentation, smooth tonalities. My assumption was that this screen rendition would fairly represent the images in the book itself. It does not. In fact, not even close. Here is a 1:1 scan from the book superimposed on the above screen capture. I cannot image a better example to illustrate how images on-screen can be misleading.
The grain is huge in this image. Not all of the images in the book are like this one — some are much worse. True, some have less grain, but there is not an image in the book that is grainless with the smooth tones we've come to expect in fine landscape images. Large format view camera work this is not. Heck, digital capture with a large sensor this is not. This is, to my eye, the kind of grain I am more used to seeing in street photography from the 1960s. It seems uncomfortably out of place in the landscape.
Here is an even larger view. Yikes. Caveat emptor with this book if you are a devoted fan of great landscape work.
Of course, who am I to complain? Salgado can make anything he wants in any way he wants. And, as I say, the images in this book are still enjoyable for other qualities of the work — not the least of which is the comprehensiveness of the undertaking. I'm glad he did the work, and glad Taschen has created the book. I do wish, however, that the images didn't suffer from such a flaw.
"Flaw?" you say, "Flaw?" I do. I simply cannot imagine that if all methods of producing a photograph were inherently grainless by nature, that someone would purposely introduce grain into an image like this as a method of improving it. For some kinds of imagery, perhaps, but not for landscapes. In my opinion, the images in this book would all be improved without this intrusive grain — an impractical wish considering Salgado's working methods and equipment choices. Too bad, because it diminishes what would otherwise be a tour de force in photographic history. Instead, we are left with a street photographer's view of the natural world. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it could have been better.
Bluntly put, this kind of grain feels like sandpaper on my eyes. Perhaps I am too sensitive about this, and if so I'm willing to admit it. A lifetime of working diligently to reduce or eliminate this "flaw" in the photographic process has left me too well trained to abandon it now. I'll just need to enjoy the book for what it is and try my best to look past the visceral reactions I can't seem to squash.
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