‘The Salt of the Earth’: Aesthetically Marvellous, Politically Toxic

For a trailer, see
This is an (aesthetically) marvellous movie on one of the world’s great photographic artists. I first knew of Selgado from an expo at The Photographers’ Gallery in the mid 80s of his astonishing photos of the Serra Pelada open-cast goldmine. For a while I’d been feeling that nothing new would happen, photographically …. his images were like nothing I’d ever seen ! Who would have thought that in the late 20th C men would labour, of their own choice, in conditions that Athenian Greeks would have recognised ! I’d never seen those photos at such a high enlargement, and I was astonished that their quality held out – then I realised that I shouldn’t have been surprised, because the negatives were 35mm format, which is, of course, the medium on which movies (until digi) were encoded.

Salgado has the most astonishing ‘eye’ for framing and composition, and a perfect sense of image tonality. His photographs have a kind of monumentality which, aesthetically, is very powerful – the closing part of this movie showed the political toxicity of this.
What seemed to me to be missing from the movie – considered on its own terms – was that no attempt was made to explore how Salgado acquired, with no background in artistic education, his truly amazing ability to draw with light. Also, as a photographer, I’d have liked some discussion as to whether and how his move from analog to digital imaging had changed his practice. On a couple of occasions Salgado showed his subjects the images he’d made, on the display-screen on the back of his DSLR; how did they respond ? Was this different to photographing with Tri-X in his Leicas ? OK, this may be a tad geeky kinda question, but only the most idealist aesthetic can think that the materiality of the medium has no effect on the process and the product. But then, perhaps digiphot is just the materialisation of this aesthetic 🙂 Praps it’s too early to tell.
In the late 90s Salgado embarked on a major project documenting the world of manual labour. Once again, his images of the ship-breakers in the Indian sub-continent were a revelation of the persistence in advanced (even if not ‘late’) capitalism of archiac modes of subsistence. The movie commentary had it that it was precisely Salgado’s academic training as an economist which had sensitised him to the issues of globalisation and exploited labour. This had it precisely wrong ! : The discursive practice of economics is merely the common-sense of the businessclass rationalised into a shamtheory. It, like Salgado’s aesthetic, is about, and is only about, the surface. His workers are indeed monuments, statues – inert and unaware, never constructing themselves as collective subjects who resist their own exploitation.
Salgado was greatly attracted to Africa. He was deeply affected by the genocidal civil war in Rwanda. This led him to the view, in his own words, that: ‘We [humanity] do not deserve to survive’. Some may feel that this treasonous view is excusable, or even justifiable, given his exposure to the lived reality of racial atrocities. But feelings only take us as far as more feelings. Consider:
1) The massmurders in Rwanda were not at all unique, were not unprecedented.
2) Salgado choose to immerse himself in that situation. Was this because he wanted his … what to call it? … ‘anthrophobia’ to find confirmation?
3) What those who condemn humanity fail to grasp is that just the basis for this condemnation is (unless one is a theist) nothing other than humanity’s sense of its own real nature.
Following this trauma, Salgado retreated into a private existence. He then, as it were, returned to his roots on the land. Energised by his wife, he began a programme of re-planting the land he had inherited. In his lifetime a fertile land had become desert. Through the force of will and collective labour this has been replanted and is once again fertile. The movie made a great deal of this, in terms of the supposed cyclical nature of existence. Now the question as to the most adequate images for the geometry of history is a tough one. My own view is that any attempt to do so is utterly and necessarily useless. But it’s a project that seems to have (I don’t undertand why) a great appeal. Deifferent cutures, and different currents within cultures, have attempted to figure their own sense of the historical process by very different figures: an ascending line; a declining line; a spiral; a circle; a series of epicycles. Making all allowance for the complexities of this matter, it seems to me unarguable but that the political meaning of the figure of the circle, in timepresent, is deeply and essentially anti-modernist. To be blunt: it is the fascist philosophy of history.
Now fascism makes a great deal about primitivism. So it’s entirely appropriate that the last of Salgado’s photographic projects in the movie is of a culture of forest-dwellers in the deepest Amazon. Their life appears to resemble the life depicted of Adam and Eve before The Fall. They are unconflictedly polyamorous, egalitarian and hold property in common. Each one of them has a tube inserted, and permanently fixed in their lower lips. The movie does not ask why this is so, it is remarkably incuriouis. It appears that the purpose of this practice is to enable a person to lie down underwater for an indefinite period, breathing through the tube. But there is no discussion of this.
Whether Salgado’s aesthetic talent should be seen as correlative of his philosophical crudity; independent of it; or in tension with it is never broached. Salgado’s spectatorial relation to the world is echoed in the movie itself.

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