Sebastião Salgado in Antarctica: Genesis

Sebastião Salgado’s monumental series Genesis is laden with political purpose, and seeks to expose the social and environmental problems facing our planet. Raised on a farm in Brazil, Salgado is particularly sensitive to the ways in which human beings are affected by their relationship to the environment, and how this can impact socio-economic conditions. The series, which Salgado has described as a ‘love letter to the planet’, consists of a vast array of images of the natural world at its most dramatic.

GenesisWorkers (1993) and Migrations (2000) as Salgado’s third major long-term project. Whereas his first two projects documented human plight across the globe, Genesis, shot over eight years from 2004, aimed to capture the few remaining environments untouched by human hands.

Salgado’s images are rendered in strong chiaroscuro, deep blacks contrasted by intense areas of light. This aestheticised depiction of the natural world serves the artist’s purpose, heightening the overwhelming scale of the landscape, creating an image rich in atmosphere and drama. This, in turn, encourages engagement from a viewer: vital for Salgado’s environmentally motivated agenda. Genesis takes us on a journey to the remotest regions of the planet, including Antarctica, perhaps the world’s most endangered habitat.

While documenting the vast and inhospitable continent, he visited Deception Island, a dramatic, almost primeval landscape that is home to one of the world’s largest colonies of penguins, and the site of several active volcanoes. In one photograph, Chinstrap Penguins, Deception Island Salgado records a tumbling mass penguins seemingly bursting forth from the centre of a crater, hundreds of thousands of birds moving as one. The photograph’s structure comes from the swirling line of the queue of penguins, that cuts across the centre of the composition, and threads itself from the foreground into the far distance. The image is one of awe in the sheer numbers of lives recorded in one scene, and the power their combined presence has on the scene.

Another image rendered sublime by Salgado’s lens is Iceberg Between Paulet Island and the Shetland Islands, which sees a castle-like iceberg hang majestically between an inky black sea and a sky heavy with clouds. The colossal scale of the palatial iceberg thrusts upwardly through the composition, only heightened by its rendering in pale whites and greys against a brooding sky. The towering shape, akin to a man-made structure, adds to the sense of otherworldliness, adding to the connotations of the current conflict between man and nature that Salgado’s series suggests.

Salgado has described Genesis as a ‘mosaic presented by nature itself,’ but it is clear the series is not just a romantic contemplation of the sublime, instead, it opens up a discussion about what we have done to the planet and what we must now do to protect it.

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