Book review: Workers, by Sebastiao Salgado

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One of my favorite photography books of all time is Sebastiao Salgado’s Workers, published by Phaidon. There are various printings around – some hard cover, some soft; the one I have is soft cover with a dust jacket. I actually find these easier to read, but I do worry about the long term durability of the bindings. Groups of pages are stitched together then held in a glued matrix at the spine – this kind of binding has given me some issues in the past, if the quality of the glue isn’t up to par.

But I digress. The book is about the photographs, and to a lesser extent, the printing; not the binding.

Brazillian-born Salgado is a photojournalist who needs no introduction – his long and distinguished career has included a stint at Magnum before founding his own agency, Amazonas Images; he’s also a UNICEF ambassador and has worked with the UN, WHO and other NGOs. He’s one of the few people who’s even had a special edition Leica set produced for him, which I believe was eventually auctioned off for charity. (As of late, he also seems to be a Canon brand ambassador.)

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Salgado has a preference for megaprojects – photographic assignments that last for years, or decades, rather than mere days or weeks; his latest and final project, Genesis, begun in 2004 and supposedly nearing completion. Workers was shot on medium format and Leicas; he has recently switched to a digital capture workflow, however, physical negatives are made from the select files and printed the old-fashioned way – which undoubtedly contributes to how his images have such a unique look.

That look – best described as tonally rich, with well-executed dodge and burn in the highlight and shadow quarter tones – is extremely distinctive, and highly textural. You can usually tell at a glance if an image is a Salgado. What elevates Salgado into the great photographic pantheon is his ability to combine perfect presentation with perfect framing, dynamically strong lighting and emotionally arresting subjects – each image provokes an emotional reaction in the viewer – anger, hope, pity, awe, fear – sometimes all at once, even.

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The content of Workers is very much encapsulated in the title – it’s a look at the people who keep the great economic machine turning over; curiously, there’s very little seen of the ‘managers’ and clerks; you get the impression that he either doesn’t think they’re worth bothering with because they do little to no real work. The reality is probably a mix of that, and the fact that piles of paper and meeting tables in faceless offices don’t typically make arresting photographic subjects. What you do get is a very intimate view into the spectrum of physical labor – from sulfur mining with bare hands to the construction of the Channel Tunnel. Nothing is clean and industrialized, perhaps with the exception of an auto production line; Salgado’s images portray reality: dirty, oily, textured and visually stunning.

The book itself contains several hundred images in black and white – I don’t think Salgado has ever tried working in color – there’s very slight bronzing to the printing, but I personally feel it adds to the overall look and feel of the images. I’ve had the privilege to see original prints at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and feel these are very authentic indeed. The density of printing is also excellent, with blacks being extremely deep and the rich tonal variations faithfully reproduced. There are also numerous foldout pages for larger subjects.

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If you have a single photojournalistic bone in you, Workers and his other books are highly, highly recommended – it’s a book I go to for both compositional and tonal inspiration. Even if you have no interest in photojournalism, it’s difficult not to be awed by Salgado’s images; they show us a side of the world that few get to see, but for some people forms their entire reality. And hopefully, that incremental understanding and tolerance we take away from seeing into the lives of others goes beyond the enjoyment of the images. MT


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