Salgado Amazônia

Paradise Transformed

August 25, 2021By Heidi EllisonExhibitions
Mariuá Archipelageo, Rio Negro, State of Amazonas, Brazil, 2019 © Sebastião Salgado
Mariuá Archipelageo, Rio Negro, State of Amazonas, Brazil, 2019 © Sebastião Salgado

The first thing you see when you enter the darkened “Salgado Amazônia” exhibition space in the Musée de la Musique at the Philharmonie de Paris will knock your socks off: a large, grainy, high-contrast black-and-white print of heavy, roiling, black-edged clouds hanging ominously over a peaceful stand of trees surrounded by floodwaters. “Looks like all hell’s going to break loose,” said the friend who accompanied me to the show.

That’s basically the message of this exhibition of photos of the Amazon rainforest by Paris-based Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who took these pictures of the shrinking rainforest and its people over a period of seven years: all hell is breaking loose in the Amazon rainforest and on the entire planet.

Jutaí River, State of Amazonas, Brazil, 2017 © Sebastiao Salgado
Jutaí River, State of Amazonas, Brazil, 2017 © Sebastião Salgado

Salgado is one of those rare artists who is capable of creating works with a political message that are also extremely beautiful and can effectively focus the attention of the public on an issue, whether it is the massacres in Rwanda or the plight of Brazilian gold miners, subjects he has treated in the past.

When you see the dramatic, large-format landscape photos of Amazônia in this exhibition, the first question that pops up is, “Why black-and-white for such a colorful subject?” In fact, Salgado has worked almost exclusively in black and white during his career because he mistrusts the veracity of color reproduction and because he finds that color distracts from the subject matter.

Exhibition view. Photo: Gil Lefauconnier
Exhibition view. Photo: Gil Lefauconnier

The effect is powerful as you wander through the exhibition, accompanied by an atmospheric soundtrack by Jean-Michel Jarre incorporating prerecorded sounds of the Amazon, but after a while, the landscape photos, as stunning as they are, begin to look a little samey, so it is a relief, then a thrill to come to a side room where a slide show of portraits of members of 10 different Amazon communities is presented, with another wonderful soundtrack composed by Rodolfo Stroeter.

Bela Yaminawá, State of Acre, Brazil, 2016 © Sebastiao Salgado
Bela Yaminawá, State of Acre, Brazil, 2016 © Sebastião Salgado

Do take the time to look at all of these moving (in both senses) portraits, which, even though they are posed, draw you into a world so foreign to ours. Salgado asked his subjects to pose as they wished to be seen. They may be in groups or alone; dressed or undressed; decorated with traditional body paint, tattoos or other adornments; and accompanied by pet monkeys or birds. The variety of self-presentations and the beauty of the images are marvelous.

Luísa, an Ashaninka woman, State of Acre, Brazil, 2016 © Sebastiao Salgado
Luísa, an Ashaninka woman, State of Acre, Brazil, 2016 © Sebastião Salgado

The slide show has no captions, but for those who want to know more, most of the portraits are also displayed in circular enclosures farther on in the exhibition.

Only a hardhearted person could not worry about the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest after seeing these photos, but Salgado does more than just document the situation He and his wife, writer, film producer, environmentalist and curator of this show, Lélia Wanick Salgado, have actually helped reforest 17,000 acres of the Atlantic Forest through the Instituto Terra, which they founded in 1998 (it should be noted, however, they have been criticized for accepting funding for this project from Brazilian gold-mining company Vale, voted the corporation with the most “contempt for the environment and human rights” in 2012).

When you leave this show, you may feel as if you are returning from a voyage to a paradise whose days are sadly numbered.

Note: “Salgado Amazônia” is also being shown this year in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Rome and London.


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