First of all move me….

Posted on July 5, 2013

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‘First of all move me, surprise me, rend my heart; make me tremble, weep, shudder; outrage me, delight my eyes afterwards, if you can.’
– Denis Diderot

I was watching a BBC programme about the Louvre in Paris and the above quote by the 18th century French philosopher and critic Denis Diderot grabbed my attention.  At the time he was encouraging artists to move away from the excessive mannerism of the rococo style. This is a cry for content over form in art…..and if he were alive today Diderot might be making the same appeal to photographers. Having observed the debate about Salgado’s Genesis on the Weareoca website this comment seemed particularly timely.

I must go the Salgado exhibition so I can join in the debate. I have held back because I was put off by the exhibition’s billing as the ‘…world premiere of Sebastião Salgado: Genesis [which] unveils extraordinary images of landscapes, wildlife and remote communities by this world-renowned photographer.’ The fact that the exhibition was curated by Salgado’s wife also worried me a little. I am not sure why this is. Perhaps it is because the Natural History Museum appear to be condoning self promotion and nepotism. It also struck me that staging the exhibition at the Natural History Museum seems to provide the work with a scientific stamp of approval, which is strange given that it is just one man’s view and is in no way a scientific survey.

The basic idea behind the work was that Salgado would go out into the world to find people, animals and places untouched by our modern way of life. In an interview with publishers Taschen Salgado stated that he found that close to half the planet is in a pristine state. This seems a quite remarkable and potentially misleading statement.

What is also unclear is what lessons we can learn from these remote communities and places. Indeed it is hard to see what these might be. Are we all supposed to step back in time and revert to a primitive lifestyle? To be honest the few images I have seen on the website seem like a mixture of romantic landscapes, powerful wildlife imagery and ‘colonialist style’ representations of people from remote communities, offering them up as objects for the Western gaze. There are several images of the tail fins of whales for example….are we to take these as evidence that whales are flourishing?

As I have not been to the exhibition my observations are premature, so I will hold judgement until I’ve been. However, I fear that Salgado’s practice aims to delight the eyes first and to leave open the question why we should be moved, outraged and so on (Perhaps it is simply expected that we will be moved by the extraordinary skill of the world renowned photographer Salgado).

…..we shall see.

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