As Taschen republishes Sebastião Salgado’s classic reportage from the Serra Pelada gold mine, a former Magnum director recalls the day it first landed on his desk
In spring 1986 I moved to London to become the director of Magnum Photos’ first new office in nearly 40 years. I had spent the past half decade running Open Eye, a publicly funded photography gallery in Liverpool, and moving to a new city and into the world of journalism and commerce was very exciting. Initially I worked out of a small office off Gray’s Inn Road with a couple of phone lines and a filing cabinet that quickly filled with new photo stories sent every week by Magnum’s offices in New York and Paris.
My job was to traipse around London visiting magazines and newspapers to sell stories and pitch new ideas to commissioning editors. At that time, Magnum’s profile in London was not very high. A number of picture editors expressed surprise that the agency still existed with one young man, heading up the desk of a daily newspaper, claiming not to have heard of it at all.
When I named some of the founders, his reply was “Cartier-Bresson? That’s a posh watch, isn’t it?” Coming from an environment where an idea for a project might take two or three years to come to fruition, moving into a world where a telephone call could result in a commission that would be shot, edited and published within six weeks, was a liberating experience.
I first met Sebastião Salgado at Magnum’s AGM in Paris later that year. Even back then I recognised that his Workers proposal – to photograph 42 different stories on manual labour around the world – was going to be a hard sell. It was madly ambitious, and I struggled to think how to even begin pitching the idea to editors in London.
Salgado called me in October; he had just returned from Brazil where he had photographed a gold mine known as Serra Pelada. He believed he had shot a good set of pictures on what was his first story for Workers, having piggy-backed his trip on a paid assignment. That had got him to South America, but he had shot the story in his own time, spending his own money.
He asked me to take the story to Granta, a respected literary magazine that sometimes publishes photoessays. We spoke again in March 1987 after he had edited and printed the story, but when I suggested that one of the bigger magazines might buy it, he thought it unlikely because the mine had been photographed many times before. It was true; several photojournalists had been to Serra Pelada and produced stories, including Magnum’s Brazil correspondent, Miguel Rio Branco, who, like most others, had shot with colour film, spending just a day or two capturing the spectacle of 50,000 men digging for gold in the mud in the middle of the Amazon. Salgado, on the other hand, had shot exclusively in black-and-white, and had spent around four weeks living and working alongside the mass of humanity that had flooded in, hoping to strike it rich.
The story was the epitome of Salgado’s thesis: that manual employment, the very thing that defined the proletariat – the ability to sell one’s labour – was coming to an end, about to be superseded by mechanisation and computerisation. Soon after his visit, the 50,000 men digging with picks and spades were replaced by modern mechanical mining techniques. Looking back now, we might have paid more attention when we saw the sociopolitical uncertainties emerging from what we glibly called the ‘post-industrial communities’.
Epic poem in photographic form
The package of pictures arrived on my desk from Paris one morning and I pulled out 40 or so beautifully made 24×30cm black-and-white prints. I knew immediately that I wouldn’t be taking the work to Granta. Here was a virtuoso of photography. Salgado had used a complex palette of techniques and approaches: landscape, portraiture, still life, decisive moments and general views.
He had captured images in the midst of violence and danger, and others at sensitive moments of quiet and reflection. It was a romantic, narrative work that engaged with its immediacy, but had not a drop of sentimentality. It was astonishing, an epic poem in photographic form. It was my first year working at Magnum, and I remember thinking, “Imagine if I get even one story a year as good as this!”. Thirty-odd years on, I realise how lucky I was to ever receive a story as good as this.
An hour later I walked into the office of Michael Rand, art director of The Sunday Times Magazine, and a man who was instrumental in the development of newspaper colour supplement magazines in the UK, and together we went through the pictures. A look from Rand prompted his picture editor, Suzanne Hodgart, to ask how much we wanted. I doubled the highest price I’d ever got for a story, to which he responded, “Yes, sure”. I realised later that if I’d asked 10 times the amount, they would have still bought it.
The story was published over six pages in early May. Rand’s layout was clean with the minimum of text, and he regretted later that he hadn’t given it another two pages. The next morning, the phone didn’t stop ringing; editors from other magazines demanding to know why I hadn’t offered them the story. Mark Haworth- Booth, curator of photography at the Victoria & Albert Museum, asking to buy the prints for the museum’s collection.
Paul Arden, the then-chief creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, the world’s biggest advertising company, asking if he could buy some prints, and would Salgado work for him, if he found the right project? The Serra Pelada story had excited people across the full spectrum of visual professionals. It affected the public too. Philip Clarke, editor of The Sunday Times Magazine, told me weeks later that he had never in a very long career had so many letters from the public about a single story.
Previously, it had been incredibly difficult to place black-and-white stories. This was a time when publishers had just spent tens of millions upgrading their printing presses to produce full-colour magazines – not because they believed colour images presented a more contemporary narrative, but because they could charge double the price for a page of colour advertising. Many times I would put forward a story proposal to an editor who would show enthusiasm, only to turn it down when I said the photographer was shooting it black-and-white. And many times photographers were persuaded to shoot in colour, because after all, they had to eat.
To me, it was clear that this one story had changed all that. It went on to be published across the world to similar reaction. And thereafter, editors began to consider the issue of colour versus black-and-white on the basis of merit and its appropriateness to the piece.
In advertising and in fashion, black-and-white began to be shot again as a matter of choice, and clients could understand that it would stand out in the full-colour magazines. Within a year, the influential Independent newspaper launched its weekend magazine, highlighting photographic features shot exclusively in monochrome.
For many photographers, an attitude had persisted that black-and-white was serious, while colour photography was commercial, or at best pictorial, and now many went back to their preferred media. And of course, Salgado carried on producing and publishing story after story in his epic Workers project, which was now taken up and financed by the world’s top magazines.
Patience and curiosity
So how was it that Serra Pelada captured so many people’s imagination? What did Salgado do? How did he do it? Was it as simple as the fact that he used black-and-white film?
When preparing a work, many artists will sketch out their ideas in pencil or charcoal, allowing the mind to dwell on the core ideas they want to draw our attention to. It often makes it simpler to define the subject of the picture, to manipulate the elements that form the bones of the picture, in order to create a dynamic composition. Texture and light are similarly transposed, not in imitation of the actual thing, but as a rendering of the idea of its form.
It is not too fanciful to call upon the Platonic theory of forms; the idea that there is a perfect notion of a particular object, and that by removing the dimension of colour we are coming closer to the ideal. It’s been repeatedly commented that Salgado somehow captures the dignity of his subjects, even in their moments of vulnerability. This might well be enhanced by his use of black-and-white as a medium, but it’s more to do with two other qualities that Salgado has in large measure: patience and curiosity.
I remember Salgado telling a story of when he was photographing a feeding station in Ethiopia during the great famine of 1983; he counted 34 news crews passing through the camp in the 10 days he spent there. The patience and the concentration it takes to remain in one place, to try and see beyond the first impressions, to force yourself to look at your subject in different ways, in different lights, and then to go back and look again, is an essential quality in any great artist.
It seems something that rarely exists, and perhaps even less so in our modern society that now constantly demands instant gratification. It was the weeks as opposed to hours spent at Serra Pelada that allowed Salgado to get below the surface, beyond the superficial, and connect us with the idea of labour, its dignity and its degradation.
Allied to this patience is a deep curiosity about people and objects, and about how the world works. The photography profession gives licence to look and to record. Very often we see photographs where, had we been there, most of us would have looked away – from the grieving mother, the disaster, an act of violence, or even something as simple as another person’s embarrassment. We wouldn’t want to intrude, or couldn’t bear to witness the pain, or fear that anger would be turned upon us. Photographers take on that responsibility for us, sometimes to their cost. And thank goodness they do. Salgado has a deep fascination with his subject, with human beings and the ways they seek to survive, and it is his presence of mind to look and not turn away, to keep looking and arrange the subjects before his camera into patterns that emphasise and clarify the meaning he has divined, the story he wants to convey.
Time again after the publication of Serra Pelada, I heard the same words and phrases to describe it: “biblical”, “Cecil B DeMille cinematic”, or “what the building of the Pyramids must have looked like”. Salgado’s rendition of the scale of the landscape was something that maybe we had experienced in Ansel Adams’ large- format photographs of Yosemite National Park, but here the monumental was delivered via a journalist’s 35mm hand-held camera. I’m not qualified to talk about advances in optics, or development of film chemistry, or Salgado’s nine-bath film processing methodology, but I, like everyone else who looks at Serra Pelada, am awed by the sense of scale that Salgado captured, in individual images and cumulatively.
Patience, curiosity, commitment and the mastery of technique were combined with an ability to blend them into a moving narrative, a desire to explore a deeply held thesis about the changing world and then communicate it, making it relevant to our understanding of geopolitical change. Ultimately, Serra Pelada fascinates and appals at the same time. We are mesmerised by this mass of humanity and the search for fortune. There is something almost primeval about the idea of finding buried treasure. And maybe it is really this; what this set of pictures excites in us.