Friday, May 15, 2015

SALT OF THE EARTH: A Photography Exhibit Of A Biodoc

Opening today at an indie art house near me (like The Colony Theater here in Raleigh, or The Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill):

(Dirs. Juliano Ribeiro Salgado & Wim Wenders, 2014) 

The bulk of this biodoc about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado is a straight forward display of hundreds, maybe thousands, of the man’s exquisite black and white photographs. A cinematic slide-show largely narrated by Salgado (in French with subtitles), the film takes us through the last several decades of a globe-trotting career chronicling the lives of the world’s dispossessed.

Co-directors Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (the photographer’s son) and Wim Wenders, who also provide narration alongside their subject, begin their portrait with intensely detailed images of mud-caked masses climbing Serra Pelada, a gold mine in Brazil.

These are taken from a series of pictures Salgado shot in 1986, and are among his most well known works. “I could almost hear the gold whispering in the souls of these men,” he recounts. The 71-year old Salgado, with bushy gray eyebrows and a shiny bald head, sometimes appears in close-up super-imposed on top of his photos, in black and white, of course, to better blend in.

There are bursts of color between the dry runs of b & w photography, as we journey with Salgado and son to the West Papua Highlands of Indonesia, then to Wrangel, a remote island far north in the East Siberian Sea, and later to a beautiful Amazonian rain forest.

We also get the prerequisite back story in which we learn that Salgado grew up on a ranch in Aimorés, Brazil, at 17 met the love of his life, Lélia, who he soon married; earned a Master’s Degree in Economics, but was sidetracked when he realized that taking pictures gave him so much more pleasure than his economic reports.

With his wife’s support, Salgado abandoned his promising, well-paid career as an economist and started from scratch as a photographer. His first photo series was done in Niger in 1973 during a severe drought, while back home in Paris, Lélia was pregnant with this film’s co-director.

Following that, Salgado and his collaborating spouse start work on their first major project, “The Other Americas” (1977-1984), which focused on Latin America. While looking through the photos from that collection, Salgado observes, “When you take a portrait, the shot is not your alone. The person offers it to you.”

Other photography projects turned acclaimed award-winning publications followed: “Sahel: The End of the Road” (1984-1986), which reported on the famine in Ethiopia, Africa: “Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age” (1986-1991), which Salgado says pays “homage to all the men and women who built the world around us,”; and “Exodus” (1993-1999), a project about refugee camps and people fleeing genocide that left Salgado disgusted and disturbed (“My soul was sick”).

The tons of stark, sharp photographs of emaciated, starving people, and piles of corpses in mass graves, will be difficult for some audiences to handle but with hope they’ll take to heart Salgado’s statement that “everybody should see these pictures to see how terrible our species is.”

However, Salgado’s spirits, and ours, get lifted in the last third by two developments: he and his wife’s forming the Instituto Terra so that they could replant two million trees in order to rebuild the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, and “Genesis” (2004-2013), a project with the goal of showing what “nature, animals, places, and peoples were like at the beginning of time” as Wenders puts it.

The “Genesis” segment contains some of Salgado’s most glorious, and astonishing photography, though I may be partial to his spectacular pictures that he took in Kuwait at the end of the first Gulf War of the hundreds of oil rigs that Saddam Hussein set fire to. Salgado: “It was like working in a huge theater, 500 oil wells burning - a giant stage, the size of the planet!”

Essentially a photography exhibit of a film, SALT OF THE EARTH lost the Best Documentary Oscar to Laura Poitras’ CITIZENFOUR, but it’s a much more nuanced, emotionally affecting, and certainly more visually gripping experience than that highly touted Edward Snowden biopic.

Its imagery may be painful to endure at times, but there’s so much power to the portraits of strife, struggling humanity, and troubled terrain captured by Salgado’s lenses that most likely moviegoers won’t walk away from it with sick souls.

More later...

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