Category Archive for: ‘Go See’

Salt of the Earth — Film Review

Salt of the Earth

Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado



This documents the life and work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado.  Salgado was one of my own photography teacher’s favorites and I went to see an early exhibit of his in San Francisco, probably around 1990, of South American Indians.  I remember being impressed by the quality of his prints and his compositions.  This film confirmed the correctness of that early impression and showed how much Salgado has developed in the intervening years to the point where I would call him one of the greatest photographers of all time.  He belongs in the company of Adams, Weston, Steichen, Steiglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Frank, Strand, Maier, and Mapplethorpe — although Mapplethorpe was mostly a studio photographer, he had the same eye for quality, composition, and human sensitivity.  Salgado is the very top level of photography.  Whether he is photographing landscapes, portraits, refugee camps, dead bodies, burning oil wells, portraits, or his wife, he is always an artist.  He is always aware of composing the image for the maximum aesthetic power and emotive effect.  His mastery of light and how to use light in a photographic composition is equal to or beyond anyone’s.  The film did not say whether he makes his own prints, but I was able to find out from an excellent interview by photographer Anthony Friedkin with Salgado’s gallery dealer Peter Fetterman, that Salgado works with several printers, at least in his later years, and he is very hands on in supervising them, going over contact sheets himself with a loupe, and directing the darkroom work in creating the prints.  The interview with Peter Fetterman is lengthy and excellent and I highly recommend it.1

Salgado went through an interesting evolution in his work and within himself that the film presents to great effect.  In his early years he documented the plight of the poor and the downtrodden.  He photographed native peoples, workers, refugees.  He traveled to war zones, famines, refugee camps, burning oil wells in Kuwait, Africa, Rwanda.  He was interested in destruction, genocide, starvation, human brutality, indifference, and suffering.  After decades of immersing himself in the abyss of human cruelty and suffering he came to the conclusion that “we are a terrible species.”  The most destructive and pathological that evolution has produced.  The darkness within human capability is unfathomable and horrifying.

And then there was a change, a turnaround.  Since about 2004 he has been documenting the beauty and renewal of the earth.  He discovered that there is as much going on in the world that is good as there is evil.  And so his recent work, called Genesis, is a compendium of magnificent landscapes from around the world, especially Siberia, Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, and Africa, coupled with the human interest photos of which he is a master.  This inner transformation, from being preoccupied with destruction and brutality to growth and renewal, expressed outwardly in his photographic work, is one of the most interesting aspects of the film and of Salgado’s life.

In a world where everyone is a photographer and more pictures are being taken of everything than can ever be imagined or ingested, Salgado stands out as one at the very pinnacle of quality and substance.  This film is a beautifully made presentation of his life and work and I wholeheartedly recommended it with high accolades.



1.  Interview with Peter Fetterman by Anthony Friedkin.  September 13, 2013.