Book review: ‘The Scent of a Dream: Travels in the World of Coffee’, by Sebastiao Salgado

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‘The Scent of a Dream: Travels in the World of Coffee’, by Sebastian Salgado, first edition, Abrams, late- 2015

It’s been a little while since I last reviewed a book, and a surprisingly a much longer while since today’s subject put out what was supposedly his last work – ‘Genesis’ (2013). Genesis’ challenge was that its scope was massive (a decade-plus of work, covering umpteen continents and locations) and it had been played up to the point that expectations were extremely high. Accompanied by a massive travelling exhibition with a huge number of large prints – you really got the sense that the images were meant to be viewed in that format over the book, and perhaps that we were missing something from his previous work by viewing it smaller. Unfortunately, this proved to be mostly not the case: whilst the impact of the prints was definitely wonderful, anything remotely approaching an intimate examination revealed serious shortcomings in printing and huge inconsistencies in post processing. There were also so many images that the whole thing felt like it could have used a bit more curation; understandably the output from a lifetime magnum opus would be huge, but even with the audience giving you the benefit of the doubt – there’s only so many images you can fully appreciate before hitting saturation. At least the lighting was nice.

Which is one of the reasons I’ve come to the conclusion that the book format is probably best for Salgado’s work; it allows you to take a (coffee) break between, ruminate, and come back to it. The smaller print sizes also make the differences in era/style/technique less jarring. Genesis was supposedly meant to be Salgado’s last big project, but it turns out he had another surprise either in curation or production: a commission by Andrea Illy, of Illycaffe notoriety, to document the origins and production process of his product. It turns out this was a very good fit for so many reasons: Salgado coming from a family who owned a plantation, then subsequently starting his own career in the International Coffee Organisation and being intimately familiar with the parts of the developing world where coffee is produced. (Yet oddly he claims not to drink it).

The Scent of a Dream is clearly a project of a) defined scope and b) much less ambitious reach than Genesis, and it shows, in a good way. Whilst Genesis spans such a long period of Salgado’s career that you can actually see his thinking and shooting process (and output) change from film to early digital to ‘mature’ digital – The Scent of a Dream is much more consistent in both style/presentation and message. I think it helps immensely that the curation has a much tighter structure: it simply follows the logical steps involved in producing coffee from planting to roasting and early distribution across the world; covering Africa, South America, India, Indonesia and China, which shows sufficient diversity but avoids being repetitive or verbose. Unsurprisingly, these are also the plantations from which Illy coffee is sourced. Consumption is left out, but given the potentially massive scope here (and risk of appearing overly commercial) – this was probably a sensible choice.

From a production standpoint, it’s a nice volume: linen cover binding (no dust jacket) and surprisingly light for its size (this is a fairly big book, but I suspect paper density is a little lower). The paper itself is matte and nicely toothy, and ink application is dense and rich. It still looks like digital offset as you can see fine halftone dots if you look closely, but it’s amongst the best of its kind I’ve seen. Interestingly – even though the images look digital, there’s still something filmic about them as the added noise pattern seems to play quite nicely with the halftones. Moreover, Salgado (or more likely, his production team) have learnt from Genesis and given The Scent of a Dream much better postprocessing consistency; the images are reminiscent of his earlier style, but with more control, and no longer a clumsy ‘Salgado filter’ turned up to 11.

I have to admit that the choice of title is a slightly perplexing one: it’s ‘the dream’ part that I have some trouble reconciling. I think it’s related to Salgado’s childhood and formative years, or perhaps alluding to the feelings evoked when we ourselves smell a good cup of coffee or some freshly ground beans. The mood of images in this book is definitely lighter and more positive than his other work, even if the presentation style and light are the same. I suspect this has a lot to do with the careful curation to ensure a lack of any long faces. The landscapes have a more idyllic and idealistic quality to them, and the people appear content – for want of a better word. I suppose this is the commercial side of Salgado showing itself: nobody wants to have unhappy or negative associations with their morning cup.

Overall, I can’t help but feel that The Scent of a Dream is a much better place to end his career than Genesis; it just feels more intimate, more hopeful and nicely closes the circle of both his life and provides a link between the both kind of work Salgado is known for and something we personally can identify with in day to day life. It lacks the wow or awe factors of the huge Genesis prints, but also doesn’t leave you feeling that the set would have been stronger with fewer images. I can only wonder if the images would have been different if he did actually drink coffee… MT

‘The Scent of a Dream: Travels in the World of Coffee’, by Sebastian Salgado is available here from Amazon.


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  1. “(…) anything remotely approaching an intimate examination revealed serious shortcomings in printing and huge inconsistencies in post processing.”
    i’m sorry to disagree with the mere existence of this kind of analysis but i strongly do. photography is much, much more than this kind of analysis and way, way more than “pixel peeping”. when we look at sebastião salgado’s work we just don’t care about those stuff

    • No? I agree you don’t care about the execution *until it becomes distracting from the creative intent*, and compared to his earlier work – it distracts a LOT.

      • knickerhawk says:

        Exactly correct. I’ve seen the Genesis photos in the traveling exhibition and a number of them for sale in galleries and I own the book (not big expensive version). Over many years I’ve seen quite a few of Salgado’s pre-Genesis prints in-person as well. A number of the Genesis images are worthy and comparable to the best of his earlier efforts, but a surprising number of them are visibly hindered by the way they were processed. A few are so obviously overdone in Photoshop as to be quite surprising. Inconsistency is the hallmark of the Genesis project and even when the differences aren’t distracting when viewing individual images, the problem becomes apparent when you work your way through the exhibition. The magnitude of the effort and the many breathtakingly gorgeous images overcome the limitations, but it IS unfortunate that the overall impact of Genesis is technically blunted considering it was undertaken in the first place as something of a technical and documentary tour de force.

        • Aliocha says:

          Even though I’m not a “pixel peeper” myself, I must admit after seeing the huge print of the Genesis exhibition a few years ago, that the differences between post-processing techniques were obvious even to me .
          Salgado explained later in an itw that he began the Genesis project with Tri-x and then switched to Canon EOS D for practical reasons

          • That’s precisely my point: it isn’t the absolute quality that matters so much here, but the inconsistency that lands up being distracting.

            • MLopes says:

              things have the importance we allow them to have.
              it’s our choice where, how and how deep we focus on a subjet.
              does inconsistency matters or distracts in a kind of work like genesis (i saw the exhibition and own the huge beautiful hard-cover autographed book)? just if you let it. and we let it by giving it a kind of importance it has’t. it´s your choice on what it’s not important in a kind of work like genesis or focus only on what is.
              i think i’ll never be able to explain it to you, it’s a feeling thing not a rational one (not a pixel or a post-processing technique). forget it..

  2. Jorge Balarin. says:

    Thank you for the interesting review.

  3. Very readable review, thanks, and I agree with your views on Genesis. I wanted to buy Genesis: some of the images in it are truly memorable in content and sumptuous tonality. I didn’t buy it though due precisely to the same observations you made. I would have bought the book had it improvements in the areas you mention, though I also condemn the spreading of one image across two pages.

    I detest that practice. Unless a photographer has actually photographed a two page spread in a book, I can see no sensible reason to print a single image across two pages. I cannot understand why publishers do this or why photographers allow it. It is akin to looking at prints with the edge of your hand in front of your face at the same time.

    • Thanks. I think the two page spread isn’t so much of a problem if the images are chosen with some sensitivity – the problem happens when the subject lies in or close to the gutter, or the image is interesting specifically because it’s discontinuous – which is of course at odds with any presentation that also has the gutter as a physical division…

      • Thanks for replying: it still makes no sense to me even if the main subject is away from the centre. It still effectively crops the image so why not just do that anyway and avoid an ugly gutter?

        • You may still want the left for context, or the image may not work small?

          • The question I ask myself whenever I see a gutter across a picture is: “Does this way of presenting the picture enhance the image or detract from it?” The answer is invariably no and in fact I find it irritating that perfectly good images are ruined this way. I have yet to see any image that is spread across two pages that has benefitted from it, or which was better than the image smaller on one page would have been.

            Any context is still there if it is smaller on one page. If it really needs to be bigger then at the very least use a folded page (pullout) that minimises the gutter to a crease, or a larger book, or a poster, anything but the destructive and crass gutter

            I personally find gutters across pages to be a cheap and ineffective solution to the problem of the image needing to be bigger. in fact in my opinion no image needs to be bigger at the expense of it’s compositional integrity. I always find the gutter to the detriment of the image.

            I’m sure it would be an interesting project but I have yet to see any image taken deliberately with the intention of being presented with a gutter and that would be the only exception to my objections. Trying to be charitable , the closest scenario I can imagine that might work would be the night sky looking straight up, with essentially the same content/context on both sides (the opposite of your option of the main subject on one side) using the gutter to draw one into infinity.

            That idea aside I find gutters to be an intrusion and utterly objectionable. I understand it is common practice but believe it has been accepted not through appreciation for its virtues, but rather due to its unchallenged ubiquity and from habit.

            • “The answer is invariably no” should read The answer is invariably no it does not enhance it”

            • “I’m sure it would be an interesting project but I have yet to see any image taken deliberately with the intention of being presented with a gutter and that would be the only exception to my objections.”
              I think you’re right – there aren’t any. This is where economics comes in: a smaller version may not work visually. A larger version would require 4x the book size, making the economics unworkable…

              • I cannot concede that a single page image is ever improved by enlarging it across two pages it and putting a gutter slap bang down the middle of it. Just because it exists within the confines of the book format does not excuse this vandalising of the picture.

                In my opinion, if it doesn’t work visually as a smallish image it will not work as a double page spread with an ugly gutter through it. I have never seen any image where this is not the case. It is a delusion on the part of the editors if they think a single page print can be improved this way.

                Can you imagine anyone agreeing that they preferred the larger of two flat prints on a wall; one printed at the single page size, adjacent to the double page sized version with the gutter printed on it? I can’t.

                If part of the image absolutely must be enlarged for the meaning of the image to be appreciated then better to present it separately as a crop in its own page. This is a tactic often employed successfully by books on art (other than photographic art), alternatively depending on how many images demand such treatment a foldout page/pages might be a much better option.

                I refuse to buy serious photography books with gutters across the images and would encourage others to do likewise until the editors get the message

  4. Interesting to hear individual choices of SS’ books. Pour moi, Sahel and many of the images in Africa were truly iconic. Once seen, they are forever imprinted. Human misery of any sort tugs immediately – yet SS’ masterful compositions and special light in the midst of constantly bleak and sullen moments recommends him to perhaps the greatest portrayer of the human condition. Just imagine placing yourself for months among the dead and dying, starving children, adults slaughtered and raped, pictures of the extremes of the human condition. Perhaps in terms of scale, noone better. McCurry is quite different but equally as great; stylistically he is a bit more Nat Geo, less focused on the failings of the human spirit. One SS image that is so poignant (being an art historian (and business educated)), is of mother and child sitting backlit in an Ethiopian refuge camp, she staring blankly into the air, the child at her breast. It is so reminiscent of Madonna and Child images from the Renaissance. Another image which immediately recalls past great art is an image of children playing basketball near a town in Mongolia by Jacob Aue Sobol. It reminds immediately of Breugel. Agreed that Genesis was an unbalanced mix of images which should have been focused solely on non-human elements (nature). SS obviously is drawn to people as are all great photographers. I am in awe of his compassion for humans and the world at large; and his greatest images are indelible.

    • I agree with you, except this statement:

      “SS obviously is drawn to people as are all great photographers. “

      I guess Ansel was a bit rubbish, then? 🙂

  5. The unique technical feature separating Salgado from most others is the size of his balls. This book pains me a bit.

  6. Hi Ming, it has been a great read and as a owner of both this book and one of the limited runs of Genesis, I think i agree with your analysis on the former.
    Also this book as been accompanied by a giant size exhibition: the prints have been hung inside the Illy pavilion at the EXPO 2016 in Milan. Really inspiring.

  7. One thing I read about Salgado’s processing technique once he went to digital, was that he still wanted his photos to have the classic film look. In order to obtain this look, he would do this:

    1. Shoot in digital like he has a film camera. He turns off the LCD monitor and never reviews his photos. This forces him to think like he still has a film camera.
    2. Convert the raw images to Tiff.
    3. Produce actual Kodak Tri-X negatives from the best raw images.
    4. Using the negatives, make true photo prints for his review.
    5. Once he determines his favorites, produce a full size museum print from the film negative and do all dogging/buring and other effects on the print using the traditional photo printing/finishing process.
    6. Create a scan of the final perfected print that will serve as the image archive and allow reproductions to be made from it.

    Based on this process, assuming he still uses it, the grain and look of Tri-X applied to the Tiff file is done in the analog realm by creating a film negative of the digital file, rather than using a digital film emulation software program.

    • That was the case previously; not sure if that still is. From the images – it doesn’t look like it; there’s none of the characteristic halation you’d see with his process and film. I suspect some of the transitional stuff might have been because of that, and some because of immature digital techniques…

      • Marco Sartori says:

        I remember DXO proudly stating that he was using their Tri-X film emulation (not the best one in my opinion btw).

    • Man he could just use instagram filters

      • I don’t think it’d be the same because there’s a lot of local dodging and burning required – at least there was in his film work; not sure if this is true of the digital workflow too.

  8. Martin Fritter says:

    Excellent review. Your technical and aesthetic judgment is informed and well-considered (better than being always right) – in what it says about Silgado, what it says about you and about the art in general. Very personal on your part, which is what one wants from an art critic. (Very interesting to know what bugs you.)

    There’s something about Silgado that makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s just my reaction to the painful subject matter of his early- and mid-career work. Maybe it’s the incessant hagiography – some of which seems self-promoting (but maybe that’s just dickishness on my part, his projects are obviously expensive).

    I thought the Genesis book was grossly over-loaded. I do recommend the Wenders film – although the succession of pictures of horrors was too much for me. Lots of footage of him at work (he chimps!).

    Can you afford to develop your art criticism whilst working for Hasselblad?

    Finally, I never, ever expected you to use the word “umpteen.” Kudos!

    • Personal preferences are never absolute, and that’s always important to remember when passing an opinion on something that subjective 🙂

      ‘Genesis’ could have used a bit more curation. ‘Workers’ and the early stuff was incredibly good, and set the bar so high (not to mention having unrepeatable material).

      Art criticism: I think that’s independent of employment, unless you work for a gallery, I suppose. Likes and dislikes exist regardless, and so long as one can explain them – I suppose they’re valid.

      • Martin Fritter says:

        Well, of course it’s “subjective.” How could art criticism ever be objective? “Mr. Picasso’s painting is mainly blue and weighs 2390 grams.” The point is to build a conversation and sense of tradition that enhances the ability to see and differentiate more deeply. BTW, Salgado’s early really is amazing. It’s remarkable that he’s still fruitful – or even alive given his adventurous ways. Many people that kind of early brilliance and success fade over time. Or burn out. I wonder if there’s such a thing as a “late style” – in Edward Said’s sense – amongst great photographers? Maybe Strand?

        • Subjectivity may seem obvious, but most people write in absolutes 🙂

          Late style: I think so; I’d call it maturity. Especially since a photograph reflects the photographer (and their interpretation of the world) as much as anything – you have to know and be confident of who you are before you can represent that in an image. Personally, every time I think I hit a wall stylistically – there’s something else that emerges…

  9. Amazing!

  10. Nice book of images but to me his most incredible work is “Workers”…. from the standpoint of incorporating his background in economics, and the beauty and brutality of the images.

    Earlier in my career, we ran the logistics of one of Sebastiao’s trips to South Sudan, and in my time interacting with him in East Africa and later at his studio in Paris (along with Lelia), they were uncompromisingly gracious.

    Best Regards,


    • I agree – ‘Workers’ was, and remains epic. I don’t think we’ll see anything like it again largely because the conditions mostly don’t exist anymore – it is a historical record, in that sense.

      What was he like in person? Did you get a sense of singular focus, photographing all the time, or was he more normal?

      • Certainly incredibly dedicated (I first met him on one of his film shoots for Genesis, before he converted over to digital, and then later visited him in his studio in Paris to spend the day with him and Lelia, mostly for the opportunity to simply interact and learn from him but also to understand how he had incorporated a digital workflow), but not passionate in the way that we often think about passionate amateurs, who are mostly just obsessed with technical perfection and gear, and usually not matching the appropriate tool to the work. Salgado is passionate about his subjects, and the bigger issues facing the world, and it shows in his intelligence and focus.

        In a way, he reminds me a bit of Prince – obsessed with the result, with the technical side serving the result, but never allowing the technique or the tools to overpower the result or be the result itself. The message and the emotion in the work was always more important than sharpness or perfection, in other words. If anyone would have been able to justify using medium format, it would have been him, but it really wasn’t practical when hiking hundreds of miles in remote locations around the world for years, so that was that.

  11. MarcoSartori says:

    Hi Ming, nice review, and I read it while enjoying a cup of coffee. 🙂

    I visited this exhibition held in Venice a couple of years ago and I’m pretty sure that some images taken on 80s were shot on film.
    I met him at a party the day after the vernissage, I remember I was wandering through the halls and corridors of an old building in Venice, looking at paintings, when I saw him and his wife. They were looking for a more quiet place, away from the crowd, I remember we had a pleasant chat for about twenty minutes and then we headed back downstairs to the party.

    • Yes, images up to the mid to late 2000s or so were shot on film. You can see the transitional digital stuff in ‘Genesis’, and the more mature digital stuff in this book; it’s still not quite as good as the film work. I suspect whoever he uses for PP isn’t quite there yet…

      What was he like in person?

      • In one sentence: his eyes have seen so much. You notice immediately. I think almost everyone knows his story, how he fell sick and ill after having witnessed too many horrors, and he was going to stop with photography. How he and his wife went back to Brasil only to find his family land dying, and they started to plant trees and bring it back to its original beauty. I think Genesis project was born in that moment, with the intent to record the Beauty of our Earth.
        Knowing all these things, covered also on a beautiful documentary, I say it was a pleasure to meet him in person and freely talking about art, people, life. I definetly would take a trip with him.
        Let’s not forget that his wife Leila had/has a big role in his life: behind, better, side by side, a great man there is always a great woman.

        Side note. Probably for Par Condicio there was also McCurry exhibition, on the same topic, in Venice, and I visited it: a different approach of course considering that that of Salgado is a collection of photos he took along the years, and that of Steve was an assignment.
        With the first obvious difference of pictures being colorful, and mounted on backlit panels inside a dim light hall, the impact was stunning, but I can barely remember a couple of photographs..

  12. Salgado is my favorite photographer of all time.
    Thank you for this thoughtful review. I will be getting this book to add to my Salgado collection!
    Any idea what focal length lens Salgado uses most commonly in his work?

    • Nope, sorry – but from the images it looks like 28/35/50, with some 85.

      • With his first digital setup I believe he was also shooting some of the Canon standard pro zooms – ie 24-70. Again, it was more about getting the shot and having options on some very remote travels than having the luxury of a huge bag of equipment.

      • I understood he also used R cameras and the 60 macro in the day. In one of his interviews (and there are several on youtube) he speaks of maximizing DOF, therefore smaller apertures, a far cry from the current obsession with supersharp 1.4 and .95 noct lenses, “creamy” bokeh and shooting wide open. Of course we love our fast lenses. I am a bit surprised he doesnt use the Monchrome 246. His move to Canon zooms and Pentax MF was prompted by versatility and ability to print very large and crop (Genesis project). One could say that choice modified the look of his output somewhat.

        Thanks for this forum Ming! It’s a pleasure to share our obsession.

        • Maximising DOF: fully agree here, and mainly because shallow DOF tends to result in a single look – everything is just a wall of blur, context is lost, and you lose the potential for spatial juxtaposition. One fights that against light gathering ability, shutter speeds, etc. – small formats have their strengths here too, but I’m starting to suspect there’s a sort of ‘total information limit’: either you have more in critical focus at lower resolution, or less in critical focus at higher resolution – net result: same total information.

          Canon: wasn’t that a commercial decision based on sponsorship? Surely it can’t be cheap to mount his kind of projects…

          • Yes, well it was Ansel I believe who coined the term “acutance” which is the appearance of sharp rendering. I dont recall any discussion by AA of lens/film resolving power as we are obsessed with the former with the advent of digital. Output with film was about “edge” sharpness (effects of silver) and color contrast. Digital presents with a smoothing effect and imho much less color contrast. Digital requires careful PP to mimic film but the reduced color differentiation at the pixel level with digital usually fails, at least with FF. So what we gain in raw resolution we tend to lose in acutance. Stopping down increases the dilemma further which is why we tend to stitch as antidote. My own MO is mostly F11/F16 (sometimes greater), single shot, and be there (in the landscape). I just dont print as large and rely mostly on contrast levels to shift towards film look.

            Canon sponsorship? Not sure. I only know he said he tried and did not like Nikon.

            His leica/tri-x images with the grain seem to stand out to me as art. But who really wants to process film anymore?

            I believe the Monochrome would have been the logical transition for him but who am I to say:)


            • It’s not smoothing so much as lack of halation (an effect caused by darker areas of film using less silver/ developer wicking developer away from the lighter areas – or perhaps it’s the lighter areas, I can never remember which) – sometimes you get these very gradual haloes around a high contrast/ low spatial frequency edge that obviously don’t exist with digital. On higher frequency areas, this translates to increased contrast – sort of like a large radius unsharp mask.

              If you’re going to have somebody process your digital anyway, it’s probably not too different to having somebody process your film 🙂

  13. Ian Gillett says:

    Great review – or should I say ‘critique’? It is good to read someone analyse rather than be sycophantic. I too went to view the ‘Genesis’ exhibition while it was at the Natural History Museum in London. Initially I was overawed by being in the presence of so many dramatic black and white photographs but, as I revisited the exhibition, I became disappointed. Some photographs were printed large which should have been smaller, while others were small and should have been larger. Then, as I became more familiar with the images, I started to think “That couldn’t have worked in colour – because of the heavy ‘burning-in’ of the sky”, “The horizon in that image is not level”, etc. Nevertheless I remained amazed by the range of images included in the exhibition – maybe, as you say, they should have been better curated. I remember one image, of a tribal leader, where he had what looked like a locker key on a chain around his neck and how I felt that was a sad comment on his society that he needed to lock things away – although it may have been a status symbol, as well as a comment on our society that we find it necessary to do that.

    I look forward to getting a copy of Salgado’s new book (and am somewhat intrigued to compare it with Steve McCurry’s recent work, also on coffee), but, like a previous person who commented, also hope it is not the place where he ends his career.

    • Actually, I think the Coffee book is a great place to end his career – full circle in so many ways, and a much more coherent, cohesive work than Genesis…but yes, I think you’ll be quite happy with it. 🙂

  14. End of Career? that would be a shame…..

    • In all fairness, he also said the same thing after Genesis – so I think it may be taken with a pinch of salt. I don’t personally think a true photographer can ever retire/ give up…even if they no longer show their work publicly. It just isn’t possible to give it up so easily.

  15. It´s a great book with – as you put it – a sensitive mind to it! I love it!!!

    • I have to say I’m still surprised he isn’t a coffee drinker…though perhaps the reason why is because he knows too much (which like with all things, might take the fun out of it…)

      • Maybe, but I don´t know… I don´t drink coffee myself and this is just because of it´s taste, which I simply don´t like 😉 It´s still – or because of that – a wonderful book! Also highly recommendable is his just recently published (at least in Germany) book about the struggle against the burning of the oil wells in Kuwait in the early 90s (“A desert on fire”).

        • Good point 🙂 Too long in the creative industry and you eventually learn to like it; coffee becomes necessary, not optional… 😉

          Kuwait oil wells: I think a lot of those were in ‘Workers’; it’s possible that’s a repackage?

          • Yes; in that book, a selection of the pictures he took in Kuwait in the early 90s are comprised. It´s a stunning documentation of what comes near to hell!

  16. Thank you for the careful and thoughtful analysis. I will look for a copy. I am curious if anything technical or artistic stood out as something you might emulate, adapt or avoid in your own work?

    • At this point, probably not; I went through the Salgado-emulation phase a long time ago, and decided I prefer something a bit smoother and more controlled for monochrome work many years back…his style is so distinct that it makes no sense to try to copy it.

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