MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Writing Assignment 2 — results

“Richards and Salgado – Two Documentary Visions”
While Gene Richards is considered one of the great, if not the greatest, American documentary photographers of his generation, he is hardly a photographic “artist” in the technical sense, depending as he does on the raw impact of his images, rather than their technical perfection or beauty. Sebastiao Salgado, on the other hand, produces rich, gorgeous, technically perfect photographic images of unimaginable suffering. Which of these approaches do you prefer, and why? Does either approach detract from the photographers work, or specifically add to it?

Maniella, East New York, 1992 © Eugene Richards

Maniella, East New York, 1992 © Eugene Richards

I disagree that Eugene Richards is not a photographic “artist”. “Maniella”, probably his most recognizable photograph and the cover art for “Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue”, is masterfully executed. The shallow depth of field is perfectly focused on her eye. It shows us she will have that fix no matter what. Even if you couldn’t see her semi-toothless mouth holding a hypodermic needle, the crazed look in that single eye tells you everything you need to know about addiction.

There is no doubt that Sebastião Salgado is a brilliant photographer, rivaled perhaps only by Ansel Adams in the technical precision of his work. And Adams had a greater luxury of time. Most landscapes will hold still for you, at least for a while. Salgado also has an artist’s eye, in that his subject matter, while sometimes hard to look at, is captured in a beautiful way.

I think their work is much more similar than the question posed would lead one to believe. Scale is the real difference, or at least the major contrast, between the works of Richards and Salgado. The only way I can liken or differentiate the work of such different artists is to look at the scale in various ways and delve into their work within those scales.

Geographic scale: Salgado’s work covers a country (Brazil), a region (the Sahel), a continent (Africa), or the planet, sometimes within the context of a single project. Richards works almost exclusively in the United States, within a specific emergency room (Denver General), a specific neighborhood (Red Hook Housing Project in Brooklyn), or a specific city (Dorchester, MA). The geographic scale of Richards’ work ends where Salgado’s begins. This specificity continues in other aspects of their work.

Scale of issues: There are exceptions for both photographers but I think it holds true here as well. Richards focuses more narrowly: The cancer, treatment, and death of his wife Dorothea Lynch; the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City; a protest against the Seabrook, NH nuclear power plant. Salgado’s works, understandably fewer in number, deal with larger questions. He has done projects on workers’ conditions across the world — “a visual archaeology of a time that history knows as the Industrial Revolution”, the 1984-1985 drought in the Sahel, the effects of colonization, economic, social, and environmental crises in Africa, and global migrations. In his own words, “Each of my stories is about globalization and economic liberalization: a sample of the human condition on the planet today.”

Temporal scale: Most of Richards’ books cover weeks or months. Salgado’s “Genesis” took eight years and “Africa” includes work done over a span of 30 years. Within individual projects, the time scale is different too. Richards looks at an event, people in his hometown, a drug fix, or a shooting victim specifically. This thing happened to this person at this time. Salgado looks at events from a historical perspective — the tide rather than the wave. The individuals will change but there were people digging for gold by hand in Brazil twenty years ago as well as today. Sadly, if there is any gold left, there will be people digging for gold (or the next rare earth needed by the newest generation of electronic gadgets) by hand twenty years from now.

Scale in the style of individual photographs: Many of Salgado’s photos are rich with the vivid detail of the surroundings of the subject. One can spend time browsing, almost like playing “find the [some object] in this picture”. His backgrounds are nearly always in focus, the depth of field echoing the grandeur of the project. Richards’ style, aside from requiring a wide aperture to capture a scene quickly in existing light, uses a shallow focal plane to bring the viewer to the unvarnished and unambiguous point of the photograph. His photos say, “this is the important thing in this image.”

Neither approach is better or more important than the other; it is the micro versus the macro view. Of the two approaches, I don’t have a preference. Each style fits within its scale. Some of Salgado’s more intimate work has a grittier feel. His photograph of Brazilian children playing with animal bones from “Other Americas”, my introduction to his work, could have been a shot by Richards. It is a softer-toned image, perhaps, than Richards might have captured, but not entirely alien. I haven’t seen a sweeping, grand-scale image by Eugene Richards so I can’t make the reverse comparison. Within their respective photographic genres, each artist’s style just “fits” and adds to the impact of the work.

Brazil, 1983 © Amazonas images

Brazil, 1983 © Amazonas images

Eugene Richards
Sebastião Salgado at Amazonas Images
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