As one of the most famous documentary photographers of our time, Mr. Sebastião Salgado drew a full crowd tonight at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. My XPanII was loaded with Neopan 1600, and film being what it is, I won’t know if anything comes out until I develop the roll, probably sometimes tomorrow. Meanwhile, a scan of the cover page of the program will have to do.
Ken Light acted as the questioner and Mr. Salgado answered and segued into all sorts of topics. The show then ended with a slideshow of photos from his latest epic project – “Genesis”, with a few questions and answers rounding out the evening. On youtube, you can find an earlier talk circa 2006 between Ken and Salgado at U.C. Berkerley.
We paid for the normal $25 admission. Our seats were most excellent, right in the center section, and with the seats rising each row, we had an unimpeded view. They offered a premium ticket reception for $100, but I didn’t think it would be worth it. We briefly chatted with a woman who was in the reception area, and she was so busy with her texting that she didn’t even know Salgado was standing just 30 feet away talking to other people.
It was also rather odd that they were selling 3 of his books (Africa, Sahel, and Uncertain Grace) autographed. Africa I can understand, since it came out only a couple of years ago, but surely anyone who knows him would have one of the other books already? I have all 3, plus a few more. I had to purchase Migration and Workers used a few years ago. It is too bad that they have not reprinted those two books.
During one of the earlier interchanges, Salgado let it be known that he had switched to digital, which drew an audible gasp from some of the audience. He later on explained that he had used Leica at the beginning (both the legendary Leica M rangefinder and also the R6.2 SLR). When he was working on the previous project, “Africa”, he wanted to print big, so he switched to the medium format camera. He chose Pentax 645 because the low-contrast Pentax lens matched the characteristics of the Leica lens he used (he was probably using the earlier generation Leica lens and not the latest high-contrast sharp-as-tack ASPH generation).
For the current Genesis project, he needs to travel all over the world going through multiple countries and airports. His assistant would carry tens of pounds (I believe he said up to 50 pounds) of films, and being post 9-11, this got to be difficult as they requested hand checking of the film. He would carry documents from different agencies and a couple of times he had to call “people in high places” to straighten things out. With the 220 film, if it went through the X-Ray scanner more than 2-3 times, the quality degraded to less than 35mm level. So the assistant said they needed to do something about the situation.
One of his friends suggested that he try digital, which at first he resisted. However, he did try a medium format 645 back and was quite impressed by the quality. Since the medium format back setup was a bit large, he eventually settled on the Canon full frame (1Ds-something?). However, he still uses it like in the film days: his assistant makes contact sheets for him, and his camera is modified to give the same 645 ratio he is used to. He also has the images processed to look like Tri-X. For prints, a lab converts the data into a 645 negative and prints using traditional darkroom process!
He is excited by the promise of the new Leica S2, a camera system that is set to challenge medium format and full frame 35mm digital by having a sensor size bigger than 35mm and with 39 megapixel resolution, quality that will likely best any medium format digital with its peerless Leica glass, with better ergonomics to boot. He looks forward to possibly using Leica again.
Salgado has witnessed a lot of human suffering and despair starting with his Sahel project. The Genesis project is a sort of spiritual renewal for him – up to 40% of the Earth is still as it was 5,000 years, 12,000 years ago. He wants to preserve that in photographs. He and his wife started the Terra Foundation, and it is now one of the biggest producers of native plants in his state in his native Brazil. While well versed in socialism and marxism, he doesn’t think that those are the paths of the human communities at large. Our time on this earth has been so minuscule, how could we possibly think we have a solution to all the problems? His only regret is that he won’t live a million years so that he could photograph the world for that long.
Unfortunately, the slide show clearly did not show the photos in the best quality. The projected images were too contrasty and as some of the images are obviously from the “Africa” shoot, I know that the actual images are not as contrasty. In my opinion, his people images are what really sets him apart – the dignity, the eyes, the Uncertain Grace. With the epic subjects, I can’t help but think that the landscape images will look too small except as a large prints. Nevertheless, I look forward to the publication of Genesis.