Penguins on Deception Island, Antarctica (part of the Genesis project)

Image by Sebastiao Salgado, 2005

In the beginning was the image, and the image was black and white. The place is an island in the frozen, southern origin of things. In the foreground, a valley floor, hard with the thinnest scrub and, tailing back into the hills behind, a climbing ridge much like the back of a whale as it breaks surface. A dynamic, muscular, living sweep to this seemingly most unshifting, deep-time environment.

There is almost no sky visible in this photograph. Is that because, once one makes landfall in a zone of sea and ice, where the sky is half of all sight and must sometimes press hard like a pillow onto the face, the eye’s desire is to fill itself with the lasting actual fact of the earth, the underfoot confirmation of looking’s discoveries.

But the landscape is far from empty of activity, far from quiet or purely ‘geological’. Hundreds of thousands of penguins - Gentoo, Adelie, Chinstrap - cover its surfaces, like guano if one is unkind, like breathing rocks, like the embodiment of the quality and tone of the image. They teem, they swarm, they crowd and disperse and march and loiter and rest and live, and to anyone who knows Salgado’s portfolio, and most startlingly to SS himself, they offer a kind of cold terrain counterpoint to his status-making, Boschian inferno Gold Miners, Sierra Pelada, Brazil, 1986.

Salgado’s recent Genesis series seeks to find the world again, or always as it was before the human project gathered steam. It is a world more democratic with species, one of co-habitation, of a certain kind of balance, however carnal. That he finds in this ceaselessly ancient gathering of penguins a considerably more benign incarnation of species assembly than in his iconic images of desperate lives scavenging under Capital, should counsel despair. And it does, of course, deeply. The human fails too often for it to be accidental. But, in offering this parallel, might it also advise us otherwise, reminding us that we are just one among the creatures, sharing more than we might care to know, and thus plant a long seed, among many so urgently needed, to green a path to change?

Penguins on Deception Island, Antartica image on Guardian Unlimited website

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