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Documenting Amazonia — and the amazing resilience of the earth

After years of photographing war and famine around the world, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado turned his lens on the Amazon. He now has two gallery shows in Boston through August.

Sebastião Salgado, "Manda Yawanawá, from the village of Escondido. Rio Gregório Indigenous Territory, State of Acre, Brazil," 2016, gelatin silver photograph in "Amazônia" at Robert Klein Gallery.© Sebastião Salgado, courtesy of Robert Klein Gallery

Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado has documented the world in transition and people caught in the teeth of that change: migrants, workers, victims of war. He has traveled from country to country on projects that take years to complete. For his newest book, “Amazônia” (Taschen 2021), he went to the Amazon rainforest.

“I spent seven years,” Salgado said via Zoom from his Paris studio. “I made 48 trips and traveled all over Amazonia.”

The black-and-white photos offer glorious landscapes and portraits of Indigenous people. “Sebastião Salgado: Amazônia”is now at Robert Klein Gallery, and a companion show of the photographer’s earlier works is on view at the nearby Leica Gallery.

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Sebastião Salgado, "Mount Roraima, State of Roraima, Brazil," 2018, gelatin silver photograph in "Amazônia" at Robert Klein Gallery.© Sebastião Salgado, courtesy of Robert Klein Gallery

The Amazon is another place in transition. Deforestation has gutted 17 percent of its area, threatening the amount of rain it can put into the atmosphere. Less rain means a hotter Earth.

“The biggest amount of water that leaves Amazonia every day is by air, by heavy clouds, full of humidity,” said Salgado. “The wind drives them all over the planet.”

“That is probably the most important thing in Amazonia,” he added, “the distribution of humidity all over the planet.”

The clouds in his “Amazônia” photographs have a sublime power similar to those in many Hudson River School paintings — epic forms, shot with light and shadows.

Sebastião Salgado, "Serra do Divisor National Park, State of Acre, Brazil," 2016, gelatin silver photograph in "Amazônia" at Robert Klein Gallery.© Sebastião Salgado, courtesy of Robert Klein Gallery

Salgado and his wife, Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, split their time between Paris and their home in southeastern Brazil, in the state of Minas Gerais. The photographer, now 78, was an economist before he picked up a camera in his late 20s, and his images contend with enormous systems, such as global weather patterns, that alter society. He began work on his 1993 book “Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age,” when he saw automation replacing human labor around the world.

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“As an economist, it was easy for me to see that we were finishing the first big industrial revolution that started in Manchester in the 19th century,” he said. “And I went to photograph for six years all over the world, the end of the working class.”

Along the way, he documented the movement of workers: immigrants, displaced people, farmers relocating to cities. His photographs convey both the scope of societal shifts caused by automation, migration, and war, and the impact on ordinary people.

“He’s not someone attempting to put globalization into a photo without giving it an individual face,” said Robin Kelsey, professor of photography at Harvard University, which awarded Salgado an honorary doctorate in May. “He has an ability to draw attention to suffering and working hard, establishing the dignity of the people he photographs.”

Sebastião Salgado, "Gold Miners, Serra Palada, Brazil," 1986, gelatin silver photograph in "Master Works" at Leica Gallery Boston. © Sebastião Salgado, courtesy of Robert Klein Gallery

By the mid 1990s, after more than 20 years of photographing the suffering of refugees and victims of war and horrors such as genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans, Salgado needed a change.

“I saw so much violence, my body started to die. I started to die. And I went to see a doctor,” Salgado said. “But he said, ‘You are not sick. But you are dying. You are seeing so many desperate things that you must stop, this moment.’”

So Salgado and Lélia moved home to his parents’ land in Brazil. He grew up on a 1,750-acre former farm 70 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The land is part of the Atlantic Forest, which is nearly as biodiverse as the Amazon. According to the World Wildlife Fund, less than 12 percent of the original forest in Brazil remains.

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“When we went there, we saw this land. This land also was dead, was sick,” said Salgado. “And Lélia had a fantastic idea. She said, ‘Why don’t you plant the original forest that was here?’”

In 1998, the couple helped found Instituto Terra (Terra Institute) a nonprofit and natural heritage preserve aimed at reforesting the area. They have planted 3 million native trees, Salgado said, and hope to have 10 million planted in the next 10 to 15 years.

“In two years, my health was completely rehabilitated,” Salgado said, “and I had a huge wish to photograph again.”

Sebastião Salgado, "Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis), Valdes Peninsula, Argentina," 2004, gelatin silver photograph in "Master Works" at Leica Gallery Boston.© Sebastião Salgado, courtesy of Robert Klein Gallery

His focus changed from the devastation humans wreak to the treasures of the earth. For “Genesis” (2013), he photographed pristine remote landscapes around the world — the tail of a right whale off of Argentina, the nomadic Nenets people of northern Siberia. Then he set to work on “Amazônia.”

“I had lost hope for our species. In Terra Institute, I learned that we must have hope for every species. If our species disappears, it’s not a problem for the planet,” Salgado said. “The planet will be rebuild itself. That gave me a lot of hope.”

Photographer Sebastião Salgado ©Renato Amoroso, courtesy of Robert Klein Gallery

SEBASTIÃO SALGADO: AMAZÔNIA

At Robert Klein Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through Aug. 28. 617-267-7997. www.robertkleingallery.com/

SEBASTIÃO SALGADO: MASTER WORKS

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Presented by Robert Klein Gallery at Leica Gallery, 74 Arlington St., through Aug. 28. www.artsy.net/show/robert-klein-gallery-sebastiao-salgado-master-works-at-leica-gallery-boston?sort=partner_show_position


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.