Sebastião Salgado is a Brazilian-born photographer, who began his career as an economist.
AF: Have you ever seen any, what we might call, a very private set of photographs that he has created about his own personal life? AF: Do you have faith people will become more sensitive to the dramatic issues he’s presented us with? AF: Do you feel that he’s ever expressed an interest in going into filmmaking as a documentary filmmaker?
I had an opportunity to interview Peter about his long association and friendship with Sebastião Salgado to learn more about this exceptional photographer. When does a document, like the classic sense of the narrative document in photography, become a work of art? Salgado wasn’t the first photojournalist to hit upon that specific gold mine in Northern Brazil. Because I know how he talks about atomic energy and the threat to the total earth through the atomic bomb. I know he discusses his objectives very clearly about what he’s hoping to accomplish with his photographs. But, have you found him being able to, in a sense, open up and get more internal, personalize his process? Since that time, which was in the early 1960's, he has accomplished a significant body of work. He connects with his subjects on a deeply personal level, and is totally absorbed in black and white photography. Do you think he works out of any sense of anger, or bitterness, about his fear that we could blow it all and just screw everything up? His work is held in major museum collections worldwide and he is also credited with numerous photographic books. Sometimes they are put in prison for it or killed for it- shot for it, or put out into some gulag in Siberia. Recently he finished an impressive project titled GENESIS, the result of an epic eight- year expedition to rediscover the mountains, deserts, oceans, and the animals and peoples that have so far escaped the imprint of modern culture and technology. We’re talking about our lifetimes, the large number of dissidents who were tortured, killed. I think a lot of his general empathy for humanity, for the kind of work he does, I’m sure must stem from this.
You are one person before you are exposed to that piece of art, and you’re another person afterwards. I mean, as a parent, I can’t imagine anything more heartbreaking than to be a parent to a child that has [PAUSE] disabilities. Whatever we do to each other as a species, whatever terrible acts that we create and inflict on each other, there is still hopefully somewhere in the world a basic human goodness.
His pictures have been published in Japan, Russia, Europe, and many Fine Art magazines in America.
Because most of what he talks about in his lectures, and he’s such a concerned and committed activist, he speaks about the environment, humanity, and culture.
I think, on a strictly pure one-on-one human level, what that does to you as a human being certainly opens your heart or your sensitivity [PAUSE] exponentially. I mean, he’s a classical black and white photographer in the tradition of Bresson or Strand, or Ansel Adams.
I think a lot of the work that he’s created, the heartbreakingly empathetic work has to be some kind of personal working out, understanding, empathy of what you go through as a parent.


Because who could believe something like this was going on in the times in which we’re living.
However I was wondering, on the Fine Arts side of photography, here’s a man that has an extraordinary eye, a phenomenal eye, I think one of the things that I personally respond to so strongly about his work is his keen sense of light, which is fundamental for any great photographer to understand. A lot of novels-there’s probably 2,000 published every month-but what makes Madame Bovary or Crime and Punishment, or whatever the novel is.
I believe he didn’t take a photograph for several weeks until he really understood what was going on. He admits without Lélia, he would probably never have been able to achieve any of these projects. So, it’s lucky that an artist has a great person who they can trust and stands behind them and helps them. AF: Well, no, but Adams did actually explore color and shoot color, as did Weston, and even Bruce Davidson, who is a great street photographer. We’re just indifferent, insensitive, greedy, vile, human beings to do this to something precious. He doesn’t just turn up at one of these remote locations without having done a lot of research.
His wife one day gave him-he picked up his wife’s camera and he started to play with it and take photographs. Hopefully, through the power and strength and beauty of these images, we will hopefully change. I think he considers himself a storyteller, a photographer, as somebody who has a mission to tell stories and explain the world to us. He stayed there for a very long time and became part of the tribe so to speak, gained their confidence and documented their daily routines and rituals.
One can’t make great prints like that unless one creates excellent negatives in the first place. He was there for three months in the freezing cold in the middle of Siberia becoming one of these people. He has gone on to, or into another area of exploration as a photographer, a different psychology, different than Salgado in some way. PF: I mean, I think you cannot do that kind of consistent body of work over 40 years, and with that quality of the work, unless you have a special gift. As I think I told you the story earlier, he was there with a lot of expensive outerwear gear on him. So, he’s planted single-handedly, he and his wife, two million trees and re-forested this area in which he grew up.
Everybody can be a writer, but there are very few Mozarts and there are very few Dickenses or Hemingways or whatever. AF: Don’t you also think part of his extraordinary commitment to his vision is his patience to stay with the story, to get to know the people? AF: Is it true that his family asked him to more or less take over the farm where he grew up? Even that, it was so cold that his clothing couldn’t protect him, the natives, the Nenets made a fur coat for him, which allowed him to become one of them, to sustain himself with them, and able to work. AF: Do you think it has been a conscious decision of his to not, in a sense, throw himself in a war zone the way James Nachtwey has? That’s a degree of dedication and commitment that very few people would put themselves through.
AF: But, it also shows how, on a trust level, the people that he works with have faith in him.


The mission is to create this work that explains the First World to the Third World, or the Third World to the First World.
It was agreed that he would have this farm and try and save it, and try to save the area, which he was doing.
I think he’s up there with Stieglitz and Cartier-Bresson and Strand and Eugene Smith.
But then what stops them is the inability to translate that vision on strictly practical terms to get it done.
As you know, you can print negatives so differently, it can make all the difference in how the audience experiences your photographs.
That’s another level of commitment, talent, whatever you call it, that very few people have. He becomes one of the people that he’s photographing because he understands their story.
PF: I choose the images that I feel communicate to me the most- in the sizes that they communicate to me. AF: If I understood him correctly in the lecture that he gave at the Hammer Museum a few years ago, he said that he felt that his background, by being an economist and being, in a certain sense, from academia, that it gave him a perspective different than if he had grown up in the art world.
I think to be a really great artist, a great photographer, you’ve got to have a broader understanding of the world we live in, rather than just some specific subject. I mean, every once in a while, there are some of his photographs that will absolutely stop me dead in my tracks. There are 400 images in the big Genesis shows, which are playing now in Rome, in London, in Rio.
But I see a whole other side of his work that is absolutely extraordinary, that goes beyond, in a sense, the document, or the social cause image, hopefully to make a better world for us.
I actually think, whether his talent is a gift or not, his photographs are absolutely incredible and some of his best represent the artistic power the medium of photography can offer -like no other art form can. PF: In the way that most of Mozart’s music is incredibly sublime, how can someone create this music?
I think that there is a point of saturation in terms of attention, in terms of digesting the subject matter. Do you think it gives them more of an appreciation for the right to express themselves freely as artists? So, given that my square footage in my gallery isn’t as extensive as the Natural History Museum in London. To visually be able to explore their world without fear of death or imprisonment, to make their statements from the heart?
That to me is one of the strongest parts of Genesis, but that’s a personal [PAUSE] taste.
When you run a gallery, you’re doing it because you want to fulfill your own kind of [PAUSE] dreams, or tastes, or choices.
How do you decide for example how one photograph is necessarily more expensive than another photograph? So, if certain images seem to be more appealing to people, then maybe that’s an economic signal to maybe price them a little bit higher. There again, most artists want people to appreciate more than their [PAUSE] top five images.



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