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Tuesday 27 March 2012

Excessive Beauty | Sebastião Salgado & Per-Anders Pettersson: AMAZON | Gallery of Photography | Dublin

Text by Sarah Allen

This month Dublin's Gallery of Photography plays host to the work of two esteemed photographers - Sebastião Salgado and Per-Anders Pettersson. Each photographer presents distinct bodies of work which deal with the Amazonian rainforest and the ongoing plight of its inhabitants.

Sebastião Salgado has achieved international acclaim for his seemingly effortless ability to transform any subject into art, his name becoming synonymous with haunting monochrome images. Yet Salgado remains one of those truly divisive artists, his oeuvre typically inciting heated debates amongst photography aficionados. The accusations leveled against him are essentially the same as those leveled against photojournalism in general. Primarily his images are criticized as being reductive, overly rhetorical and too willing to aestheticize. In essence Salgado skeptics often view his work as a distasteful plundering of the picturesque.

If you come to this exhibition weighed down by such preconceptions it will be hard to retain an unbiased response. This is because well over half of Salgado's showcased work, culled from his ongoing project entitled Genesis, depict the exotic and little known Zo'é tribe and thus deal with the endlessly intriguing "other" and the impulse to fix a fading rarity. However it is hard to see how even the most hardened cynic would not succumb to the sheer skill and entrancing artistry of these works. Ceremonial activities and hunting scenes feature heavily and see the quotidian lives of the tribe presented to the viewer as an embodiment of the mystic and almost surreal.

Peppered amid these images of tribespeople are awe-inspiring landscapes which portray untouched nature; they induce a kind of reverence we reserve for such icons as Ansel Adams. They hint at a form of modernist sublime where a sense of the absolute and the majestic is made palpable. Working in black and white has allowed Salgado to imbue his subjects with an abstracted and graphic quality - in one such example we see the Great Juruá River reduced to a simplistic but formally striking meandering line resting amid a rich landscape.

Salgado's work is without doubt indebted to approaches of modernist photography and the core belief in the inherent structure to be found in everything. Examples of symmetrical doubling are evident throughout this collection of images, none perhaps more captivating than the Waura Indians fishing; the luminous tones and strong chiaroscuro of which is poetic in its beauty. Indeed Salgado's oeuvre has often been described as "excessively beautiful", however it should be said that lending credence to this claim would be to ignore the fact that his subjects in and of themselves are "excessively beautiful". The Amazon, standing as the antithesis to our sometimes shallow and crass culture, is itself the paradigm of beauty and its inhabitants embodiments of the rare and uncorrupted. Furthermore, for those who maintain Salgado's emphatic style undermines the objectivity of his images we have to question whether he is motivated by objectivity in the first place. Stylistically his work is reminiscent of W. Eugene Smith and it seems apt that Smith once noted: "the photographer can have no other than a subjective approach".

In terms of Pettersson's work, one may have reservations as to how any photographer could attempt to stand shoulder to shoulder with the photographic presence that is Salgado. However the fact the two bodies of work are physically separated into different levels of the gallery made this issue less of a concern. The most idyllic image by Pettersson Morning Mist in Acre leads the viewer into the second phase of the exhibition which focuses solely on his photographs. Bridging the divide between these two stylistically discrete bodies of work with this image is an insightful curatorial move and one which renders the transition seamless. Rather than capturing pristine nature Pettersson has chosen to expose the ravaged and disturbing aftermath of deforestation. It is almost as it the exhibition sets up a polarity of utopia and dystopia; where Salgado virgin nature plays off Pettersson's exposition of humankind's ruinous effects on the environment. The aforementioned image of Morning Mist in Acre both attracts and repels, its beguiling and sumptuous colours camouflaging the mass deforestation that lies beneath.

While Salgado's work could be said to idealise and romanticise, Pettersson's exists very much in the present. This primarily owes to the fact he is shooting in colour; however what is equally apparent is the fact that his compositions do not display the kind of obsessive attention to compositional and formal harmonies evident in Salgado's. For example, his photographs capturing the process of rubber tapping seem to reside in the realm of documentation as opposed to fine art. However, if there is one aspect of Pettersson's images which is open to criticism it is the presence of actress Gemma Arterton. At the risk of being overly cynical, there was something almost devaluing about her presence, it seemed to abate the poignant message of the project on a whole.

The Gallery of Photography have done an excellent service to the photographer's works in terms of exhibition presentation. In past projects such as his photobook entitled Workers Salgado isolated his captions from his images. Yet given that the narrative authority of photography is mutable at best it seems almost negligent not to include explanatory text with the images. However it was encouraging to see that this exhibition included not only revealing captions but also a jam-packed leaflet to take home. As well as this it is quite hard to grasp the sheer scale from these images however by communicating statistics in layperson terms the magnitude of the issue is not lost.

The inclusion of these statistics remind us, lest we forget amid the virtuoso photography, that this project has a very real and tangible agenda, one which seeks to drive change. Thus a primary function of photojournalism, its use as an instrument to highlight the incongruities of life and propel reform is brought to the fore. What this exhibition essentially does, apart from sating our appetite for beauty, is sensitize us to our participation in the malaise that is First World decadence and disregard.

AMAZON: Sebastião Salgado & Per-Anders Pettersson, 01/03/2012 - 01/04/2012, Gallery of Photography, Meeting House Square, Temple Bar, Dublin 2. www.galleryofphotography.ie

Aesthetica in Print

If you only read Aesthetica online, you're missing out. The February/March issue of Aesthetica is out now and offers a diverse range of features from an examination of the diversity and complexity of art produced during the tumultuous decade of the 1980s in Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, opening 11 February at MCA Chiacgo, a photographic presentation of the Irish Museum of Modern Art's latest opening, Conversations: Photography from the Bank of America Collection. Plus, we recount the story of British design in relation to a comprehensive exhibition opening this spring at the V&A.

If you would like to buy this issue, you can search for your nearest stockist here. Better yet call +44 (0) 1904 629 137 or visit the website to subscribe to Aesthetica for a year and save 20% on the printed magazine.

Copyright Per-Anders Petterson.
An aerial view over the rainforest in Amazonas state, Brazil on June 21, 2011.

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