Feb 242012

The Visible Photographer

| The Curve and the Line |

Children's wasd in Korem refugee camp Ethiopia. © Sebastião Salgado

Curve or Line

What do you prefer a curve or a line?  Tough question huh?  The curve is filled with life the line with order.  The curve defines the swell of a muscle or the swirl of a wave.  Its unbridled energy excites us as we try to capture it with a camera or a pencil.  The curve often eludes our greatest efforts to reign it into captivity.   It proves difficult to predict, but absolutely essential if we wish to bring any life to our images.

On the other hand, we have the line.  Cool, straight and waiting for direction.  The line is part of our basic visual grammar.  It creates the vertical, horizontal and diagonal. We learn from a very early age that it will be the basis for organizing space or designing shapes.  But how can marry the two impulses in a single image.  For thousands of years artists have used lines to create curves, arabesques and undulating shapes.  The line and the curve are not opposing forces, but different expressions of the same idea.   Most of the formal training of any draftsmen is the effort to reconcile the character of a line with that of the curve.

Giant Tortise, Alcedo Volcano, Isabela Island. © Sebastião Salgado

A Zen Riddle

The universe is set up with an paradoxes.  We need to understand how to contend with opposing forces which will appear in our images.  How can we use the line and the curve to service our artistic impulses?  Since we are not the first ones to lift a pencil or pick up a camera, we can look at those who came before us for clues.   A good artist will balance the impulse to blurt out a scribble with the discipline to lay down a line.  Inside their life long body of work the pendulum will swing from chaos to order.  We have the luxury of picking and choosing useful tools for thousands of years of artistic investment.

Today, I wanted to set design aside for a moment.  Don’t worry, its not going away.  But to maintain our equilibrium, I wanted to touch on a photographer who has influenced my personal approach to photographing people.  Good photography is the subtle balancing act of design and passion.

Gourma-Rharous Mali. © Sebastião Salgado

Big Emotion

We are all passionate.  From the moment we were born, we come equipped with intense emotions.  Our emotions are no stronger or weaker than anyone else’s.  We all feel the world around us.  This natural emotional power can be a blessing, but is more often than not a curse.

Have you ever heard someone tell extraordinary stories about the emotions behind their photos and think,” Yeah, great story, but I don’t see any of that story in the picture?”  This is a problem that plagues many photographers and one might say the Art World at large.  Too often artists and photographers rely on artist statements, exhibition cards, and curators to explain content that is in their mind, but hardly in the work.  This is that happens when the Curve get the better part of us.

Transporting bags of dirt in the Serra Pelada gold mine Brazil. © Sebastião Salgado

Someone once told me,

“A good story teller will get YOU to cry, rather than

sobbing their way through their story.”  


Emotion can play central role to our work, but without design we might only be a sobbing story teller, with no way of conveying the feeling to others.  We want to slip under the skin of our viewers and find the chords which resinate between us.  Emotion is the curve of design.  It can get the better part of us, but it can also inspire us to explore the world.

Serra Pelada gold mine Brazil. © Sebastião Salgado

One of the photographers who inspired me to take a camera into the world was Sebastião Salgado.  Like many of you, I became familiar with Salgado’s work over time.  There was not one image that sent me over the falls.  It was a progression of images, which crossed economic, national and cultural borders.  I admired his ability to work his way through various cultures with what appeared to be relative ease.

Refugees in Korem Camp, Ethiopia. © Sebastião Salgado

Salgado’s Gift to Us

Many photographers would like to be invisible.  They would like to work without any notice.  Salgado was the first photographer for me, who tipped that equation on its head.  He works inside of communities as if he was destined to do so.  His subjects often acknowledge his presence and look right into the lens.  They stare through layers of glass, emulsion and paper to strike a chord inside our bodies.   The harmony or discord depends on the angle of his camera.

They stare through layers of glass, emulsion

and paper to strike a chord inside our bodies.



While being invisible has its perks, there are times when we are better off asking permission.  There is nothing wrong with saying, “ I would like to come inside and take your picture.”  If you have never gone inside a community, give it a try.  You might be surprised what you find.  My impulse to ask permission to take photographs came, in many ways from Salgado’s example.  His honest curiosity is inspirational and led many photographers to step out of their comfort zones and into a new world.

The Brooks Range Alaska, Genesis 2009. © Sebastião Salgado

A Four Letter Word

The other thing that I love about Salgado’s career is that he highlights an activity that hardly attracts attention unless accompanied by tragedy.  Salgado shoots people at Work.  In his book Workers (which is printed too darkly, in my opinion) showcases the anonymous masses of people, who break their backs day in and day our for a simple wage.  His images work like a mirror.  They reflect the emotional condition of his subjects back on us.  We feel for them and with them.

The Sand Sea in Nambia. © Sebastião Salgado

Good photographers are not always good speakers.  Salgado is an exception.  In interviews (Salgado Interview), I find that he is able to convey his approach clearly to an audience.  This allows us to gain a greater appreciation for his efforts.  And he takes his passion for meeting people and passes it along to us.  When I was in art school “Inspiration” was a dirty word.  It was seen as a trite summary of the artistic process.  But for me, I find it is absolutely necessary.  It taught me that, if you don’t like the impression of the world through the television, buy a ticket and go see the world on your own terms.” Don’t forget to pack your camera.

If you don’t like the impression of the world through the television,

buy a ticket and go see the world on your own terms.


The curve is the impulse which drives us.  Its weaves us with seduction and makes us lose ourselves like a child who has spun themselves dizzy.  Even in bleak moments, Salgado’s work pushes us forward.  It encourages us to probe the dark corners of the world because under every rock is another person just like us.  For me, Salgado, slung with his Leica’s, is almost pure inspiration.  The formal aspects of the work are not all in place, but it does not matter much.  For its purpose is to scribble, to incite action, and find out for ourselves how the world looks through our own eyes.


Adam Marelli 






  18 Responses to “Sebastião Salgado”

  1. Your blog is just getting better and better. I heard Salgado spoke a couple years ago in Berkeley. My blog entry on his admission that he has started to use Canon digital (and crop to 645 ratio and also print using analog method) was one of my most popular entries.


    He was quite an engaging speaker.

    • Hey Richard,

      I hope that little by little we are all getting better. Thank you for the kind words. I had a look at your entry, Very Interesting.

      The S2 makes for a very interesting alternative, especially for travel. Airplanes, customs, X Ray machines are all an enormous pain in the ass to photographers. While I love the merits of film, still shoot it, and appreciate the invaluable lessons it taught me, it is a relief to carry less. The S2 is very appealing in comparison to some of the other medium format option. The Genesis project is super interesting and I love that he works on such long term projects. He does not chase deadlines, magazines or photo editors. The photographer should be the driving force, everything else is just a commercial outlet.


  2. Great post, your writes about photographers and composition are the best that I read in internet.

    • Hey Machbel,

      In the vast sea of internet writing, I am happy to be a island worth revisiting. : )

      Thank you for the kind words, I am happy to have you here.


  3. Another great lesson Adam!
    Thank you so very much.
    Hope to attend one of your workshops one day,- perhaps here in South Africa?

    • Hey Danni,

      Glad to know this one worked for you. The balance between design and emotion is a tricky one to pull off. Happy to reveal a bit of my own personal struggles. Hope it opens up a new realm or at least a different view for some of the readers.

      South Africa…hmmm…never been before. Always up for an adventure.


  4. Thanks as always for taking the time to write insightful articles like this. :) Now I’m itching to take out my camera again and shoot and improve my eye even more. :)

  5. Thank you for writing this article, Adam. As a novice, I once photographed the border people of Mexico. I overwhelmed by the response of people in the states. There was not one dry eye. Until that time, I did not realize that photogrpahy could elicit such emotion. Your article is a great reminder of that. Your explanation of the use of curve and line is invaluable.

    • Hi Renee,

      Its always a nice feeling when someone in moved by your pictures. Keep it up, I am sure they would be disappointed if you did not. A little line, with a touch of curve should do the trick.


  6. Yes, Cedric is right! whenever I read you article immediately I want to take my camera and go out and shoot:) Great job Adam! Thank you so much!

    best greetings

    • Uh ho Anna, did Cedric pass his itching to you too?! Just kidding.

      Enjoy the shooting, really happy you guys are all enjoying the articles. Its wonderful to have some thoughtful feedback.


  7. Inspirational, as always.

  8. Wow, great read. Thanks.

    • Hi Jo,

      Very pleased to hear that you liked the article. I hope some of his approaches make it into everyone’s work.


  9. It has been a long, cold winter here in Iowa, but it’s warming up and I’m ready to get out shooting again. I often turn to your writing to re-energize and for inspiration. The problem is I’ve started thinking about buying a Leica!

    • Hey Ben,

      Glad the site is giving you the boost to make it through the last vestiges of winter. I cant wait for the snow to be done with. Walking around with a block of german ice in my hands is no fun.

      Which Leica are you looking at?


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