Spotlight

Pristine Landscapes: Sebastiao Salgado and the Sublime

14th September 2021
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, 2009 Sebastiao Salgado

Words Alexandra MacKay

14th September 2021

Sebastião Salgado’s series Genesis refers to the beginning. When the world began and remained in an entirely natural state. Salgado sought out the few pristine landscapes that remain, not simply to record them, but to urge their preservation and as a call to re-dress humanity’s relationship to the natural world.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, (2009) one of the most celebrated images of the series, lends itself perfectly to the idea of the beginning, capturing a vast expanse of mountains that scar the land until they meet with the soft cushion of clouds. The mountains formed from the movement of plates and volcanic activity hundreds of thousands of years ago and have remained preserved.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, 2009 Sebastiao Salgado
Caspar Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818)

    The viewpoint of the image suggests the overwhelming scale of the landscape, reminiscent of the Romantic tradition of the grandeur of nature, in particular Caspar Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818). Salgado puts the viewer in a position where they are dwarfed by the landscape. In doing so, Salgado engages with the notion of the Sublime. Though multiple theories on the Sublime exist, it can be loosely defined in aesthetics as the quality of greatness. According to the eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke, the Sublime is mutually exclusive from beauty. The Sublime reaches beyond the beautiful to a greater intensity of feeling. Burke’s theory is notable for its focus on the psychological and physiological experience of the Sublime; in that it can be both pleasurable and as well as invoking fear or horror.

    Salgado manipulates this notion in his images from the Genesis series. His richly toned black and white images which emphasise the organic beauty, scale and grandeur of nature evoke a reaction of awe from the viewer, yet, they also induce shock and fear at the risk of losing these pristine places. In doing so, Salgado’s imagery successfully achieves the photographer’s aim of creating an awareness and desire for the preservation of nature.

    FeaturedSebastião Salgado

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    The ArtistUndertaking projects of vast temporal and geographic scope, Sebastião Salgado is one of the most celebrated photojournalists working today. Whilst inescapably memorable for their beauty, Salgado’s photographs are laden with political purpose exposing the social and environmental problems facing our planet.

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