Our world loves to argue about which one thing, of anything, is the best. I, myself, have never been much for these conversations, these contests of absolute rightness. I’m more of a “find what works for you, and go with that” kind of woman. As a photographer, the three most common most/best questions I get are Mac vs. PC, Canon vs. Nikon, and favorite photographer. I use a Mac because it makes more sense to me and I am decades invested in it now. I shoot Nikon because that is what I started with, and while Canon had the edge for a number of painful years earlier in the digital revolution, I never could cash in all my painstakingly acquired gear and start over. Really, I like my 60 year old Hasselblad best, but I rarely shoot it these days. Finally, small cameras are getting better and better, and I am enjoying getting to know my little Fuji system, slowly but surely. It’s my first range finder camera. But, that’s a whole different entry.
However, it does bring us to question three. My favorite photographer? Well, there is no way I can say that I have one. There are so many talents, so many incredible images out there. Every day some previously unseen trove of images is revealed and shared on line. Photography: a medium for the people, and oh what work the people create, from pro’s to hobbyists. I don’ t know how anyone can choose just one. However, when pressed, and if I want to play along, I always answer the great humanitarian photographer Sebastiao Salgado. It’s funny, but for all his acclaim, fame, respect, and standing in the world, I have never heard anyone else answer that way. I find it pretty incomprehensible. I mean, you know when Wim Wenders makes a movie about a photographer and his work, that both he and his work have got to be special (The Salt of the Earth covers the arc of his career, including his most recent project, Genesis), Among all his work, it is the Workers series I come back to, again and again. And, my breath is taken away every time.
Google “Sebastiao Salgado Workers”. It is incomprehensibly beautiful. The love and respect in every image is electric, and his mastery of composition and technical skill is flawless. His work in Africa is similarly stunning. I saw an exhibition of that work in Washington, DC. I had loved photography and the act of doing it for my whole life, but seeing those prints was something else entirely. Even so, the day that the New York Times came, and the cover story of the magazine was about the Kuwait oil fires and the work to stop them, the image on the cover rocked my world. The smoke filled sky and the sheen covering the bodies of the soaked and filthy workers makes the whole thing purely cinematic, but the real life story and heroism is palpable. It’s just staggering. I still get that same feeling whenever I think of that series. I think that is why I choose Salgado. Even if you have seen those images, please, go look at them again. They are just… I can’t even give you a word. Maybe you can give me one. Just don’t ask me to pick a single favorite image.
A few years after that article ran, Workers was published. Still a bit of a starving artist, I thought I’d never get a hold of that book. I browsed the Photography section at used bookstores regularly, and one day, there they were. Not just Workers, but Migrations, and An Uncertain Grace. They are among the books most often pulled from my shelf. Now I just need to find the Africa book.
I had the great joy to be able to report a flagrant copyright violation to Salgado’s studio one day. A number of years back, there was some short lived, on-line publication. Their schtick was “we don’t pay anyone for anything”. They were rip off artists. Much of the work they used was by lesser-known artists and could pretty successfully be pulled and exploited, at least for a while. I saw that they had also pulled a Salgado image. Even villains and thieves know greatness when they see it. I figured it would be a win-win to report this to Salgado’s office. They surely keep a great copyright lawyer in steady work and would be happy to know of another violation, plus that lawyer’s note would carry weight against the publication as well, where small fries who don’t have lawyers might fight a more losing battle. It was lovely to feel I’d done a little part on behalf of one of my great inspirations, both humanitarian and photographic.
I’ve had that Google page of the Workers images up on my screen as I have been writing this. The work is so powerful, even in thumbnails, that it has me a little teary. I think I’d better pull the book out, again. To live among its tenderness and greatness is a balm and an inspiration. Who makes you feel that way?