Coffee Photography from Sebastião Salgado

Woman sorting coffee out in Karnataka, South India (2003) / Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado is a man with a seldom luck. Born in the Brazilian southeastern city of Aimorés in 1944 he graduated from the University of São Paulo in 1967. The same year he married the pianist turned architect Lélia Deluiz Wanick who happened to own a Leica camera. Due to political reasons they immigrated in 1969 to Paris. During his travels as an economist for the International Coffee Organization in London he discovered the satisfaction and challenge of photography while using his wife’s Leica. This moved him to become a freelance photojournalist in 1973, before his career as a journalist took off with the Sygma and Gamma photo agencies, and finally with the renowned Magnum Agency from 1979 to 1994. He happened to be near Ronald Reagan during his assassination attempt in 1981 and earned well from the snapshots taken during those minutes. It is luck as well that after an unstable childhood he had the opportunity to leave his country, one so rich in wealth, poverty, culture and unique vegetation, to travel the world and develop an able eye and able mind through photography. This very photography gave him the tool to raise public awareness for the roots of the vast coffee culture, which is so important for his country, the one with the highest volume of coffee export for many years.

Picking coffee, Co-operative Todo Santerita, Todos Santos Cuchumatanes, Guatemala (2006) / Sebastião Salgado

His work could be seen as one greatly focusing on people at the lowest level of society while documenting migration, labor, industry, children and refugees, so at first sight coffee may seem an unrelated topic, unless one knows some details about the unbalanced world of profit in the coffee industry and what it means to the lands and people responsible for the strongest link in the chain: farmers and workers.

The coffee series were shot in India, Ethiopia, Brazil and Guatemala and encompass the beauty of cultures and of nature, the richness and primitive, the simplicity and masterfulness of the complex world of coffee cultivation. He shows how immense live is around coffee, long before it reaches technology and the consumer world, way before reaching any espresso bar or cup around the globe.

Indian washing coffee in Columbia / Sebastião Salgado

In South India (woman in Karnataka) beauty is displayed in the mere simplicity of a day’s work. Beauty through the aesthetic portrayal of primitive and meditative work, showing a very limited amount of textures and colors, and beauty through the sensual presence of a woman whose face we cannot see. Her posture, her long black hair, her almost hidden hands and the flowers (which resemble over-sized coffee flowers) decorating her head, they all speak of finest beauty – cultural and natural – a seldom seen combination. Yet, allow me the brutality of reminding that these beauties are also about a chore being carried out as day’s work for a possible equivalence of no more than 1 Euro or Dollar per day.

Drying coffee (naturally) in Aricha, Ethiopia (2004/05) / Sebastião Salgado

Here I cannot help but thinking of one of the most wonderful coffeehouses in the world. Unique architecture, minimalistic, surrounded by a jungle of banana plants and the coffee is being dried just outside the door.

It is somehow acceptable and bothersome as well to look at the advancement, complexity and technology around us and admit how little we know about many details, processes and origin of things. In this picture (picking coffee in Guatemala) I much enjoy looking at a simple woman holding just a few branches of coffee plants – simplicity at its best, the source itself.

Harvesting Coffee, Fazenda Dutra Brothers, Manhuacu, Brazil (2002) / Sebastião Salgado
Harvesting Coffee, Fazenda Dutra Brothers, Manhuacu, Brazil (2002) / Sebastião Salgado

One of the things I love to observe again and again is the way different people achieve very own or very general forms of virtuosity: playfulness, accuracy and physical abilities, all wrapped in one.

To gallerist Hal Gould Salgado is the most important photographer of the 21st century. It is no wonder he is dedicating some precious time to the documentation of the beautiful worlds which are providing us with the drink of the passed and present centuries.

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see also Salgado’s work with Illy

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