In a dark corner of the Science & Industry Museum’s new underground gallery is a vision of the end of the world. With the wall to your left walk straight ahead from the entrance until you reach it: a black and white print about four feet by six feet across, one of the many dozens hanging in the dusk of the subterranean space. What the eye sees is an atomic bomb blast – that uprushing spew of light which the brain perceives as a mushroom cloud – but that’s not what it is. What it is, is a photograph of a raincloud exploding over the Amazon forest. When that cloud disappears – when the unique weather systems governing the forest-continent’s ecology are finally undone – so will we.
“You know your own skies in Manchester are very beautiful,” says the photographer, Sebastião Salgado, standing beside me. “I was walking by the canals. The volume, the light…they are very special here.”
Volume is one thing, of course, brilliance another. More than any art form photography is contingent on its subject matter – what you choose to depict has great bearing on the quality of the work. In this way Salgado may be reckoned as one of the great practitioners in the history of the medium. Having made his name in the 1980s with Dantean images of the Serra Pelada goldmine – hellish visions of near-naked men in their thousands hauling the precious metal out of a hole in the ground – he has continued to make art which evokes both the high mind of Renaissance art and the vitality of the modern era. “’Sometimes people tell me that ‘you are photo-reporter’” he says. “But it’s none of this. Photography is my life.”
Around us are glimpses of the forest and the people who live there: apocalyptic vistas, portraits of indigenous peoples. Does the National Geographic aesthetic hold up in the 21st Century? With those landscapes it’s difficult to credit that photography can be so good. “We don’t know our own world,” says Salgado, and you don’t need to be an anthropologist to see how this applies most specifically to Amazonia. The size of it. The remoteness of it. The otherness of it. The fact it’s keeping us alive – larger than Europe, less familiar to us than the moon. The fact there are hundreds of thousands of people there who have never been contacted by human civilization, and hundreds of thousands more who are barely in touch. Scores of tribes, scores of languages, all under threat.
We threaten ourselves, of course. “Humanity, our species…there is no future for us,” says Salgado. “We are predators. The way we are doing, we will disappear soon. And the planet…the planet will reboot itself and move on.” [About Manchester]
[Main photo: Sebastião Salgado by Danny Moran]