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Labor Intensive : WORKERS; An Archeology of the Industrial Age By Sebastiao Salgado (Aperture: $100; 400 pp.)

September 12, 1993|Jose Galvez | Jose Galvez is a former Los Angeles Times photographer who now runs a picture stock agency in Tucson, Ariz

This is, in many ways, a monumental work. Its price tag: $100. Its weight: A tad under seven pounds. The number of photographs: 350. Countries visited: 21. Workers photographed: in the thousands. Brazilian photographer Salgado has created a photographic essay devoted to the multitudes who toil for their daily bread. He has divided the book into six chapters: Agriculture, Food, Mining, Industry, Oil and Construction. In these chapters he explores themes that have defined labor from the Stone Age to the present.

Best known for his work with black-and-white film in a 35-mm format, many readers will recognize Salgado for his work on Ethiopia almost 10 years ago, when he was one of the first to cover the starvation decimating that country. His photographs of emaciated children with bloated bellies brought world attention and relief to a country on the verge of collapse.

In 1984, Salgado began thinking about doing a project on peasants in Latin America and had begun to focus on the topic of work on a global scale. But he put the idea aside for 15 months to devote his attention to Africa and the problem of famine. He was to return to pursue the current project in 1986.

A few of the photographic essays in "Workers" have been previously published in magazines, among them, the gold miners in Serra Pelada, Brazil; the oil well workers of Kuwait and workers building the Eurotunnel between England and France. This in no way diminishes the new book, which, taken in its entirety, provides a global perspective of this often overlooked but deserving subject.

My favorite photographs in the book are among the gold miners' series--men toiling in near-slavery. This whole section is a testament to workers anywhere, and could be a book in itself. One picture in particular, of miners struggling up from the bottom of the mine, and another of a man bearing a load on his head, capture a spirituality that reminds one of Jesus Christ bearing his cross to Mt. Calvary.

"Workers" also includes a fair representation of women laborers. The best series is of workers in India, on the Sandar Sarovar Dam and irrigation canal, and the Rajasthan Canal project. The pictures display an elegance and sense of pride; the women are hauling stone, dressed in beautiful saris and silver bracelets, part of their dowries. Their dress belies the difficulties and importance of their labors to the decades-long task of building both the dam and the canal, projects that, once completed, will forever change their way of life.

The biggest difficulty with this book is its heftiness. Although it is theoretically a coffee table book, it is not one you can browse through easily. Its weight doesn't sit well on your lap. In addition, all of the text is furnished in an accompanying caption booklet. While that accomplishes a noble cause (it allows the publishers to put out the caption booklet in six languages), it also makes for an awkward reference point. You have to be seated at a table to flip through the photographs and have the text booklet open to the corresponding page. Perhaps the editors could have included a few words of caption under the actual photographs, and the more elaborate descriptions in the separate booklet, so that the casual reader could enjoy the book with at least some sense of where and when the photographs were taken.

Great photographic work has been done in the past on laborers of the world, from Lewis Hines and Margaret Bourke White to W. Eugene Smith. Salgado has joined their ranks with this body of work. As a documentary format, black and white frequently carries a greater emotional impact than color, and like Eugene Smith, Salgado likes to print with rich, dark blacks and many different shades of gray. Unlike Smith, whose best essays included at most around 30 photographs, Salgado is not well-edited.

All photographers need to be edited. For this book, Salgado is working from several thousand images. They were edited down to 350 for publication, but they probably could have been cut down to around 200. Too many of the photographs are overly grainy from being blown up, particularly in the series, "Fishing, Galicia, Spain" and "Sulfur, Indonesia." And some of the most riveting large photos are laid out, inexcusably, so that the center of the composition is lost in the fold. On the other hand, several sections have fold-out panels with layouts of smaller photographs; some of these would have had more impact if they had been blown up.

Several sections could have been left out without jeopardizing the final project: "Perfume, Reunion," "Scooters" and "Motorcycles" in India; and "Titanium and Magnesium, Kazakhstan," for example. Too many times photographers feel that images from every place they visited must be published. This just waters down the impact of their very best work. The editors should also have rejected several images with scratch marks.

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