The technical perfection of composition and tone in Sebastião Salgado’s exquisitely crafted images inspire wonder, but more importantly they also have the power to touch our very core – to elicit empathy, and to stir up an almost overpowering sense of sadness, even despair, in response to the stories being told.
This documentary wisely gives us time to look carefully at the photographs, accompanied by the soft, gentle voice of Salgado himself, telling their story. At times his face appears like a reflection in the image, as he too looks again at his work and shares with us the memories evoked.
The face, the voice, the images – they all reveal a deep compassion and humanity. Salgado’s work doesn’t feel voyeuristic; the images don’t exploit, but bear witness.
After so many years documenting the cruelty of humankind, it is no surprise that the photographer succumbed to hopelessness. “We are a ferocious animal. We humans are terrible animals. Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story, a tale of madness.”
Yet the film finishes on an optimistic note. Salgado and his wife Lélia return to the family ranch and put in place a staggeringly ambitious project to reverse the “destruction of nature” that has stripped the land of vegetation. They succeed in planting 2.5 million trees and creating a revitalised ecosystem teaming with life.
It’s a welcome message of hope on which to end the film.
There is not time for the film to properly deal with some of the fascinating people in Salgado’s life, such as his father and above all his wife. However, I like the fact that you are left wanting to know more; that there are other stories waiting to be told.
A deeply moving film.
One of my favourite portraits of the jazz legend Stan Tracey is that by William Ellis.
So I was very pleased to come across this New Statesman piece where Ellis discusses some of his portraits, starting with the one of Stan.
This photograph of Stan Tracey, sometimes called the “Godfather of British Jazz”, was taken in 2003 at the Guildhall in Bath and captures a true jazz legend in a relaxed, intimate atmosphere. “I’ve got to know Stan since then and I’ve often photographed him on stage. This was taken at the sound check for the concert to be given by him and his long-time collaborator Bobby Wellins.
“Stan is one of those guys who came through, even when, as he dryly puts it, ‘The phone never started ringing.'”
Even for someone as experienced as Ellis, nerves still take hold before a shoot. “I couldn’t sleep the night before thinking about how I would arrange this sitting. But when I meet the sitter I feel so relaxed, almost like we’ve already done the session.
Ellis sums up what he thinks the essence of portraiture is:-
A portrait can be more than memorable, it can be definitive. The face is a theatre — drama, emotion and expression happening right there. A good portrait gets inside, behind the safety curtain. All the planning and the thought about how a portrait should be set up just provides a framework, but that’s all it is. It’s the intimacy and intensity during the shoot that makes it work.
For me his image of Tracey captures both the modesty, and self-deprecating nature of the man, and also his quiet determination, his refusal to compromise. It is certainly a fitting portrait of one of our greatest musicians.
Large White Cloud near Bilsington, Kent, 1981.
Here lies a subtle eye; and an even sutler human spirit.
John Fowles, describing the landscape photographs of Fay Godwin in his 1984 essay featured in her book Land.
It’s a book I treasure.
As an avid collector of all things Fowles, it was the essay which lead me to the photographs; but I quickly fell under the spell of Godwin’s sublime and sometimes enigmatic landscapes. Fowles’ eloquent description of the photo above perfectly captures how I feel about the best of this artist’s work:-
A number of her pictures I know by heart, yet look at again always with renewed pleasure. Almost all her finest ones are jealous with their secrets. It is certainly so for the one I should count as my own most cherished favourite: that superbly balanced field, tree, cloud in Large white cloud near Bilsington, Kent. I have had it beside me all through this writing, and I am convinced it is a very great photograph. Yet I am hard put to analyse why it satisfies and pleases so much: says things I know I could never write, epitomises so many unspoken feelings. It is like a certain kind of rare poem, unalterable, perfect in its every syllable.
This short piece of text moves me almost as much as the photograph it describes. All art which touches us deeply seems to defy proper explanation. We might offer suggestions and contextualisations, but the analysis is always reductive and can only be partial. The art is jealous with its secrets. And yet there is a joy in trying to explain, and the best of the commentators open up new possibilities, new ways of approaching the art. Perhaps explanation is the wrong term, it is more about sharing, finding ways of expressing to others our sense of wonder or fascination or intrigue.
So, I find it hard to ‘analyse why’ Godwin’s best photographs ‘satisfy and please’ me so much, but can only say that they are indeed like a ‘rare poem, unalterable, perfect in its every syllable’
Here are some more poems…