The career of Brazilian economist-turned-photographer Sebastião Salgado has entered the beatification phase that comes to artists of a certain age, reputation, and creative disposition. THE SALT OF THE EARTH (2014), a reverent documentary by Wim Wenders (THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB; PARIS, TEXAS) and Salgado's son, Julian Ribeiro Salgado (his first major feature), gives a broad overview of a magnificent, encyclopedic body of work that Salgado has amassed since he began working as a photojournalist in 1973; he takes startlingly pretty photographs of atrocious conditions of poverty, corporate exploitation, and genocidal neglect. This is a punishing film, with images and subject matter more psychologically disturbing than anything since THE ACT OF KILLING (2012), Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary about the systematic murders of communists and communist sympathizers in Indonesia from 1965–1966. This, however, unlike THE ACT OF KILLING, is also a film that ends with an orchestral optimism—you're likely to see two distinct stories here, and, depending on your disposition, have wildly different opinions of which is better.
As a photographer, Salgado's most high-profile works, and the works that first attracted Wenders's attention, were a series on laborers in Serra Pelada, an open-pit gold mine in north-central Brazil that is estimated to have employed more than 100,000 men at one time — when Salgado visited in 1986 the town that sprung up to house the miners was also housing scores of underage prostitutes and around 900 unsolved murders each year. The photos he took are chaotic, harrowing, violent, and reminiscent of the village scenes of Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel, or the hallucinogenic, hellish landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch. Central to the style of each is the prominent use of "staffage," a German word based on a pseudo-French formulation that, in art history writing, describes "the little people, or sometimes animals, in a landscape painting, there to give it scale or liveliness but not portrayed for their own sake." Half-naked men scale the impossibly steep walls of the pit mine on hand-built wooden ladders, cloth bundles on their backs filled with rock and dirt, hoping to pull out a fleck of gold; in THE SALT OF THE EARTH he says that being there was like seeing the construction of the Pyramids. From the start, it was these kinds of places that attracted Salgado's lens. Blurred light shifts over the credit sequence's black screen before Salgado begins narrating: a photographer is "someone who writes and rewrites the world with light and shadow." Then Wenders and Juliano drop the audience directly into the Serra Pelada photos, light and shadow playing off the rock and wood and workers teeming in the frame.
The co-directors were, for a time, working on separate documentaries about the man before combining their efforts to produce this film; Wenders interviewed Salgado in Paris, Salgado's longtime professional base, while Julian travelled with his father on the expeditions that would result in Genesis, the 2013 photo collection that saw Salgado, for the first time, move into a new kind of social activism through nature photography. As Wenders tells it, the two stories of THE SALT OF THE EARTH are "Juliano as the son who wanted to finally get to know his father, and me as a stranger who had declared for years already that this man was his favorite photographer, except that I had never met him." Both directors seem content, for the most part, to let the immense body of work speak for itself, a feat that Wenders accomplishes in the interviews with an innovative play of light. Salgado's face floats mysteriously over his photos until Wenders pulls the camera back, setting it at an oblique angle to reveal the man looking into a translucent mirror on which his photos are projected. It's a clever trick, performing a similar (if less nauseating) role to Jean-Luc Godard's 3D shenanigans in last year's GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, juxtaposing two radically different stories — the man and the work — in a single frame. On the expeditions, with the camera in his son's hands, Salgado is soft-spoken and respectful and seems to prefer, when he can, to move himself to the edges of the frame.
What the film fails to mention, however, is any of the significant controversy that Salgado's art has attracted in the past decades. He, like the Telluride Film Festival, the site of THE SALT OF THE EARTH's North American premiere last Labor Day, was subject in the early part of his career to the impeccably articulate wrath of Susan Sontag. While Telluride was accused of scrubbing the Nazi associations from the legacy of German direct Leni Riefenstahl in its 1974 tribute to her, Salgado was accused of a more insidious, subtle kind of moral failure in his life's work documenting space made inhospitable and uninhabitable by human cruelty.
Sontag's On Photography reads, at first pass, as a long, blistering critique of just the kind of war, famine, and suffering photography Salgado was best known for. "Photographs," she writes, "alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing." Salgado's extravagantly beautiful photos of human and environmental pain in the last forty years, when generously approached, raise uncomfortable but important questions about voyeurism and the ethical position of the documentary photographer and viewer when confronted with inconceivable tragedy. Ungenerously, as Sontag is inclined to take them, Salgado's photos gloss over representations of victims of war and human atrocity with neoliberal platitudes about kindness and bio- or ethnic diversity.
This is not a documentary concerned with the tension between these interpretations, although the omission of the controversy altogether is worth noting. Sontag sums up the point of strain by reference to a classic of the silent era: "Dziga Vertov's great film, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), gives the ideal image of the photographer as someone in perpetual movement, someone moving through a panorama of disparate events with such agility and speed that any intervention is out of the question." The question becomes whether Salgado and, by extension, the viewer of this film or buyer of his seven lush, thematically neat collections (An Uncertain Grace; Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age; Migrations; The Children: Refugees and Migrants; Sahel: The End of the Road; Africa; Genesis) is at some kind of moral fault for this fact.
The final chapter of the film, alluded to above, shows Salgado's move from documenting human suffering to documenting parts of the natural world not yet suffering the effects of modern human life. Coinciding with a reforestation effort on his family's farm in rural Brazil, Salgado began to work on Genesis (2013), which presents photos of untouched, rugged landscapes alongside photos of primitive societies. His work seems to imply that their simpler way of life is more attuned to the salvation and majesty of the planet. Salgado writes that "in Genesis, my camera allowed nature to speak to me. And it was my privilege to listen." Despite the New Age-y vacuity of such pronouncements (and the film itself contains a few), Salgado remains one of the most talented living composers and a master of visual form. The film offers loathsome, startling, glorious documentary photography on a massive, cinematic scale, and, as with any Wenders documentary, is passionate and earnest in its appreciation. If anything, the elision of the expected criticism and controversy makes the small points of tension in the climactic scenes about Genesis all the more important — it's a natural mirror to the opening's black screen and soft white light as Salgado's mountainous jungle disappears into a thick, white mist.
n.b. THE ACT OF KILLING'S sequel, THE LOOK OF SILENCE (2015), which follows an optometrist whose older brother was accused of communist sympathies and killed in the 1960s, played immediately after THE SALT OF THE EARTH at Telluride 2014 in what I can guarantee you was a horrific Sunday morning.