Wednesday, June 3, 2020


© jmse

By José Manuel Serrano Esparza

In mid March of 1991, Sebastiao Salgado phoned Kathy Ryan (Picture Editor of the Sunday illustrated magazine of The New York Times) to suggest her going to Kuwait to make a photographic essay covering the grueling struggle of firefighters from many countries to extinguish the roughly 700 oil wells that Saddam Hussein´s troops had set ablaze as retaliation for having been driven out from Kuwait by the United States-led coalition during the 1st Gulf War.

This scorched-earth policy had begun in January and increased in February as the ground war got underway, bringing about one of the worst environmental disasters in living memory and a complete shambles for the local people and farmers.

Therefore, the Brazilian photographer traveled to southeastern Kuwait in April 1991, on assignment for The New York Times Magazine.

In late March, news had already spread predicting that the fires would burn for two to five years before going out on their own if active efforts weren´t done to bring them under control.

© jmse

It had dawned on Salgado that it could be a once in a lifetime chance to create a very special and interesting story conveying a raft of different messages, fully immersed in particularly appalling conditions, under extremely hot temperatures, steadily surrounded by very brave and professional men striving after putting the raging fires out, and doing his best to get the most meaningful possible pictures, leveraging his remarkable flair to capture human beings relationship with their environment and delving into the economical effects of conflicts and their consequences on natural sceneries and populations dwelling them.


In order to tackle the photographic coverage of these burning oil fields in Kuwait,

Sebastiao Salgado´s Leica R6 serial number 1747647 from 1988 with Macro-Elmarit-R 60 mm f/2 serial number 3390243 sold at WestLicht Photographica Auction in Vienna (Austria) on November 27, 2005
© WestLicht Photographica Auction

Salgado chooses a 24 x 36 mm format Leica R6 manual focusing camera.

© jmse

This was undoubtedly a very wise and relevant selection, true to form based on a practical approach and optimized to plunge into the specific photographic task he would have to do in Kuwait under extreme temperatures, widspread oil slicks, flames everywhere, desert sand and oil often smearing each area of his body.

As a matter of fact, in spite of the integrated AF maelstrom in 35 mm format SLR cameras that had stormed the photographic scope since the launching into market of the pioneering Minolta Maxxum 7000 in 1985 autofocus ( fitted with motorized film advanced system which has become the industry´s standard) and had then in 1991 both the Nikon F4 autofocus (introduced in 1988) and the Canon EOS-1 autofocus (presented in 1989) as the two most widespread cameras used by pros,

Leica R6, a fully mechanical and manual focusing minimalist 24 x 36 mm format camera that doesn´t need batteries and features a sturdy completely mechanical shutter. It was able to get the pictures beside the burning Kuwaiti oil wells in 1991, under such extreme temperatures that it would have been impossible with extraordinary modern digital professional cameras available twenty-nine years later in 2020 like the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EOS R5, Nikon D5, Nikon D810, Nikon Z7, Sony Alpha 7 III, Sony Alpha 9, Fujifilm X-T4, Olympus E-M1 Mark III, Olympus EM-1X, Panasonic S1R, Leica SL2 and others needing batteries to operate and being heavily reliant on electronics. 
© Leica Camera AG

Salgado opts for a very uncluttered professional camera from Leica, only with the necessary controls and lacking AF, but being a real workhorse flawlessly working under extreme conditions,

Inner view of the first-class metal bladed, vertical travelling focal plane shutter of the Leica R6, featuring speeds between 1 second and 1/1000 s. Instead of electromagnets we can see levers, cams, gears and springs. A wonder of traditional mechanics that doesn´t depend on any electronics and includes a very accurate clockwork device. 
© Leica Camera AG

boasting an utterly mechanical shutter that doesn´t need any batteries and in perfect symbiosis with the Leica R lenses, many of which are the best ones in the world at the moment for 35 mm format reflex cameras from a mechanical and optical performance viewpoint and look the part because of their gorgeous mechanical construction, the silky smoothness and accuracy of their focusing helicoid and the excellent image quality they yield.

It is a precision camera leaving its working control in the photographer´s hands, eyes and mind, as well as being all metal, with a strong die cast aluminium body with sturdy die cast zinc top cover and brass bottom cover, so everything has a feeling of strength and precision.

While Sebastiao Salgado was in Kuwait making his legendary reportage on the burning Kuwaiti oil fields, Reimers Photo Materials Company at 300 East Bay St., Milwaukee (Wisconsin), published an advertisement on page 60 of Shutterbug Magazine number of April 1991, reporting about the virtues of the Leica R6 as a high performance professional camera with a mechanical shutter as raison d´être and incepted for a total control of decisions by the photographer. 
© jmse

In addition, Sebastiao Salgado takes three Leica R primes with him to Kuwait:

© Leica Camera AG

A) A Macro-Elmarit-R 60 mm f/2.8 Third Version. Designed by Heinz Marquardt in December of 1967, manufactured between 1972 and 2009, featuring 6 elements in 5 groups, length of 48.5 mm, maximum diameter of 67.5 mm and a weight of 400 g.

This was the lens with which he created most of his images in Kuwait, using it as a general purpose objective that could be used with all subjects and most photographic conditions,

© Leica Camera AG

with the added advantage that because of its deeply recessed front element, it doesn´t need any hood.

Obviously, this lens is a design whose optical formula dates back to mid sixties, so it is far from the stratospheric levels of resolving power and contrast of the Apo-Macro-Elmarit-R 100 mm f/2.8 (designed by Wolfgang Vollrath in 1986) at f/2.8 and f/4 apertures or the much more modern aspherical Leica lenses.

In addition, its bokeh is a bit nervous.

© jmse

But all of it doesn´t matter, because Salgado will make vast majority of his pictures in Kuwait with great depth of field, stopping down at f/8 and f/11, diaphragms in which the optical performance of the Macro-Elmarit-R 60 mm f/2.8 is excellent.

But though being fundamental aspects of any lens, resolving power and contrast are not everything.

Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait. 1991. Workers place a new wellhead in an oil well that had been damaged by Iraqi explosives. 
© Sebastiao Salgado   
He does know that the Macro-Elmarit-R 60 mm f/2.8 matches superbly the kind of images he wants to create, thanks to the fantastic way in which it captures textural details and the extraordinary even illumination attained between f/5.6 and f/11, with the added benefit of a stratopsheric ability of this lens depicting subtleties, nuances and detail in shadows, enhancing the synergy with the very wide tonal range that Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film is able to attain. 

Besides, it is a lens wonderfully adapting to his meditative style of photography, taking the necessary time to get the pictures.

And unlike stratospheric Leica R lenses as the Apo-Macro-Elmarit-R 100 mm f/2, Apo-Summicron-R 180 mm f/2, Apo-Telyt-R 280 mm f/4 and others yielding a type of image looking for optical perfection from a scientific standpoint and unmatched levels of resolving power and contrast at the time, the Macro-Elmarit-R 60 mm f/2.8 hasn´t glaring weaknesses,

Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait, 1991. Chemical spray protects a firefighter. The light metering system of the Leica R6 (in symbiosis with the experience of the photographer metering through estimation) helped to get impressive pictures like this with great differences in diaphragms between the high key and low key areas of the frame, since it is a design wonder in which light comes through the lens and strikes a very sophisticated semitransparent multicoated mirror, which is coated with 17 different layers to accurately produce the reflection and transmission characteristics wished by Leica. This way, thirty percent of the light passes through the mirror and strikes a complex mirrored reflector made up of 1345 tiny reflectors that concentrate the light and precisely reflect it down to a single silicon photo cell in the base of the camera´s mirror box.  
© Sebastiao Salgado  
paints wonderfully and delivers pictures oozing character of their own, together with a very special visual aesthetics accurately depicting the atmosphere of every photographed instant.

© Leica Camera AG

B) An Elmarit-R 28 mm f/2.8 First Version (1970-1994). Designed by Rudolph Ruehl in 1970, featuring 8 elements in 8 groups, length of 40 mm, maximum diameter of 63 mm and a weight of 275 g.

It is one of the lightest lenses of the Leica R System, very compact and comfortable to use, with good resolving power and contrast in the center at widest f/2.8 aperture and soft on the corners, but on stopping down to f/5.6 and f/8, image quality is very good, with clearly superior micro contrast and a commendable uniformity of performance between center and corners.

Furthermore, it is a prone to flare lens at f/2.8, but if won´t be significant either, since Salgado will mostly stop down on using it to get extensive depth of field and optimize its optical performance, beaten by the superb one delivered by the 8 elements in 7 groups Elmarit-R 28 mm f/2.8 Second Version which will appear two years later, but enough for the kind of imagery the Brazilian photographer hankers for.

In addition, the tiny dimensions and weight of this Elmarit-R 28 mm f/2.8 1st Version were to practical effects more adequate to shoot handheld than the Elmarit-R 28 mm f/2.8 2nd Version from 1993 (featuring a length of 48.5 mm, a maximum diameter of 67.5 mm and a weight of 435 g) in the midst of the dreadful conditions in which Salgado had to work next to the burning oil wells, with oxigene getting depleted, exceedingly suffocating heat, smoke blocking out the sunlight and the photographer sweating buckets at every moment, so the 160 g less and the almost 1 cm shorter length of the first version lens were helpful.

© Leica Camera AG 
C) A Summicron-R 35 mm f/2 Second Version (1977-2009) featuring 6 elements in 6 groups along with a length of 48.5 mm, maximum diameter of 66 mm and a weight of 430 g.

From a mechanical viewpoint, this is a superbly built objective, with lens barrel, aperture ring, focusing ring and the built-in lens hood manufactured in metal.

The movement of the focus ring is pretty smooth and the aperture ring is snappy, in half f-stop increments.

It can´t be defined as very compact or light, because the Elmarit-R 35 mm f/2.8 is smaller and lighter, but anyway, it isn´t bulky at all and enables to comfortable shoot handheld with it, as well as being a very sturdy lens boasting a built-in retractable sunshade able to withstand a major hit or an accidental drop.

On the other hand, its focusing throw is much longer than 35 mm wideangle lenses from other brands, and allows exceedingly accurate focusing.

Its center image quality is outstanding at every diaphragm, whereas its optical performance at f/2 and f/2.8 in the corners drops significantly, with an apparent degree of softness, and is simply acceptable.

Two highly knowledgeable firemen check and clean a wellhead (made up of spools, valves and assorted adapters that provide pressure control) at Greater Burhan Oil Field, while other teammates surround them. Kuwait. 1991. The legendary look of Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film, with its superb acutance and its beautiful visible grain are pretty apparent in this photograph made from a very distance. The photographer shot stopping down at a slow shutter speed (which has rendered the moving left arm of the worker nearest to the camera blurred, getting motion feeling) spawning and extensive depth of field with great sharpness from foreground to background on almost the whole surface of the negative. 
© Sebastiao Salgado 
But the Summicron-R 35 mm f/2 produces superb image quality between f/4 and f/11, with excellent resolving power and overall contrast, particularly in the center, and fairly good tonal reproduction, so it is a very suitable lens for the kind of images with great depth of field that Salgado will create in Kuwait, in which the blurred outer corners delivered by this lens at f/2 and f/2.8 (that could be a major drawback in some applications like architecture photography) are irrelevant in Salgado´s images with substantial sharpness zone.

And the 1.2 EV vignetting of the lens at widest f/2 aperture won´t pose any problem, since vast majority of the pictures will be made stopping down.

Moreover, its resistance to flare and glare is very good.

If we add to it that distortion is very well corrected, with only a very small barrel distortion of around 0.8%, it seems evident that albeit not being a stellar performing lens, the Elmarit-R 35 mm f/2 is an excellent one with very precise focusing, great ergonomics and just about the perfect size for a significant gain in luminosity enhancing the brilliance and sharpness through the reflex viewfinder with respect to the Elmarit-R 35 mm f/2.8.

© jmse

Therefore, Sebastiao Salgado isn´t a photographer particularly concerned about technicalities of cameras, lenses or MTF curves, and in the type of photography he does, maximum feasible perfection in terms of resolving power and contrast are not the most important priorities, so on choosing the photographic gear, his decision is boiled down to utmost possible adequacy for the photographic task to accomplish.

Whatever it may be, it is clear that his choice of a Leica R6 and three Leica R primes (specially the Macro-Elmarit-R 60 mm f/2.8) paid off and he got gorgeous and simultaneously haunting pictures of the set ablaze Kuwaiti oil fields, the brave firefighters trying to extinguish the fires and the ravished landscapes.

But things would be much more terrible in Kuwait than Salgado had foreseen, and getting the pictures would become the greatest challenge in his photographic career that had started eighteen years before in Paris, when he gave up his activity as an economist and devoted his life to photography, working for Sygma and Gamma Photo Agencies until joining Magnum in 1979 and gaining international fame as a photojournalist on managing to capture the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in March 1981.

Kuwait, 1991. A firefighter controls from a very near distance the effect of water thrown with hoses on the flames of a burning oil well. The firemen plucked up courage and managed to remain unflappable in a context like this putting them through their paces. 
© Sebastiao Salgado     

From the first day of his stay in Kuwait, particularly in the area of Burhan oil wells, Sebastiao Salgado realizes that the context in which he will have to get pictures is truly apocalyptic and fraught with almost insurmountable difficulties to obtain images, because of a number of factors:

A fireman walks beside a burning oil well previously destroyed with explosives by Saddam Hussein´s troops while fleeing Kuwait and whose huge flames and dense smoke reach great altitude. 
© Sebastiao Salgado

- Temperatures are hugely high, often ranging between 65º C and 200 ºC next to the oil wells, with a significant lack of oxygen, so breathing becomes very hard and everybody must often wear special protective clothes.

Three firemen struggling to cap an oil well in Greater Burham Oil Field. Kuwait. 1991. The level of detail, sharpness and capture of textures yielded by the Macro-Elmarit-R 60 mm f/2.8 in the center of the image is praiseworthy and particularly discernible in large prints on the metallic components. 
© Sebastiao Salgado

- There is a permanent risk of explosions.

A fireman walks on the desert sand near a explosion of a Kuwaiti oil well visible in the background and whose flames are soaring a lot of meters. The marks on the desert sand of the caterpillars and bulldozers used by the firemen can be seen in the foreground. The versatility and wide exposure latitude of Kodak Tri-X 400, pushed to EI 800, made possible to get this picture with great depth of field, shooting handheld at f/11 and slow shutter speed under very low light conditions. Once more, the lavish detail captured by the Macro-Elmarit-R 60 mmf/2 in both highlight and low key areas is truly laudable. Moreover, the exceedingly bright and contrasty viewfinder of the Leica R6 (the best in the world in 1991 in the reflex cameras scope along with the one featured by the Olympus OM-1) was of invaluable help for Salgado, who got a lot of mileage out of it to quickly and accurately focus when he had to do pictures like this under very dim light conditions. 
© Sebastiao Salgado   
- The smokes have absorbed roughly 80% of the sun´s radiation, preventing its rays from lighting the locations, and there are massive quantities of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide everywhere.

One Kuwaiti local man clad in traditional clothes comforts another one beside him while watching a lot of oil wells burnt by Saddam´s Hussein retreating troops. Once again, the extensive depth of field attained by the photographer shooting stopping down at a slow shutter speed has resulted in sharpness almost over the whole surface of the image, in which are relevant the huge columns of black smoke on the upper half of the picture, the low sun on the left, the two human figures and the charred ground everywhere. Dominique Granier´s darkroom wizardry is apparent in this image whose grayscale, dodging and burning are admirable. 
© Sebastiao Salgado

- The air is saturated with soot and charred sand.

An experienced fireman orders the rest of members of his team to stop on approaching to an oil well. The risk of explosion or slicks ignition was always present, so security measures and caution were of top paramount significance. 
© Sebastiao Salgado

- There are a lot of large and very dangerous flammable slicks that is frequently necessary to cross walking on them to approach as much as possible to the fires and extinguish them.

- Land mines around the oil wells which had to be cleared first, at a high degree of danger.

© Sebastiao Salgado

- There are heaps of swollen bodies of burnt camels, killed by the fires and the highly polluted air, resulting in an unbearable stench.

© Sebastiao Salgado 
-There is a steady rain of oil, soaking both the firemen and the photographer at every moment.

- Physical weariness is constant while getting pictures and the photographer drips sweat with every movement made.

- To comfortably look through the extraordinary reflex viewfinder of the Leica R6 usually becomes out of the question, since eyes are frequently full of sweat and reddened by the suffocating temperatures. Therefore, to be able to get the pictures becomes a highly strenuous effort, most times on the brink of exhaustion.

- It´s very difficult to avoid the pervading smoke entering mouth and lungs, so stress skyrockets.

- The constant noise generated by the burning oil wells is so strong that firefighters are bound to cry to each other´s ear to be able to communicate.

- Heat is so vicious that unpredictability reigns supreme, to such an extent that one day Salgado´s Elmarit-R 28 mm f/2.8 First Version lens warped after being very near the flames for many hours. 

- Unexploded cluster bombs appear from time to time on the desert sands around the oil wells, greatly increasing the danger.

An image clearly depicting the courage and comradeship of the firemen striving after extinguishing the fires of the Kuwaiti oil wells. One of them is throwing water at the burning oil well with a hose from inside a protective structure, while other three very near him are observing the evolution of the flames and giving instructions. The veteran fireman located most on the left is greatly risking his life because of his huge proximity to the blazes, fundamental to convey accurate information to his teammates. And the three further firemen placed on the right and near Salgado´s Leica R6 camera remain in reserve, watching what is happening and ready to help if it is necessary. The level of comradeship of these men was incredible. In addition, the greyscale of the upper area of the picture is admirable, in the same way as the lavish detail in lights and shadows. 
© Sebastiao Salgado

- To get the best possible pictures means to  unabatedly stick close to the very brave and experienced firefighters.

The upshot of it is that fulfilling this photographic essay in Kuwait becomes a battle of attrition in which however good photographer you can be, it isn´t enough at all to go ahead with this picture story in which plucking up courage, overcoming fear to death, withstand the fatigue and an unwavering passion for what you are doing also become key factors.

Therefore, Salgado had to engage himself body and soul to get his job done, risking his life many times and simultaneously trying to survive in the same way as the firemen with whom he was embedded.


An utterly exhausted veteran fireman engrossed in his thoughts while resting with his back leaned against a truck wheel very near an oil well. All of his body and clothes, the desert sand surrounding him and the wheel are completely covered in oil. His countenance shows overexhaustion, tons of accumulated strain and grief. Greater Burham Oil Field. Kuwait, 1991. 
© Sebastiao Salgado

But if there were people deserving accolades in this story for having jeopardized their lives, they were undoubtedly the brave firemen from five firms (particularly the Canadian team from SafetyBoss of Calgary and the United States squad from Red Adair Company) who fought tooth and nail to quell the fires and were photographed by Sebastiao Salgado, most times in action,

A fireman lying utterly exhausted on the ground. He is at the end of his tether after having fought for many hours trying to cap the oil well in the background. 
© Sebastiao Salgado

but others ones frazzled.

Another fireman resting on the ground next to an oil well still pumping oil. He has fallen backwards, overworn by the toil, and his helmet is out of his position. 
© Sebastiao Salgado

Highly experienced and professional men with boundless courage, whose efforts to bring the fires and other damages under control began in April 1991 and finished in November of that year.

Eight months enduring an ordeal of flames, far from their families, always covered in oil, often trudging through flammable and exceedingly dangerous slicks (some firemen died one day when the oil patch on which they were walking burnt) to reach the oil wells.

Two worn-out firemen resting next to an oil well on which they have worked intensely for a lot of hours. Both of them are completely covered in oil, in the same way as the surrounding ground. On far left of the image can be seen a third fireman´s right leg leaned on the new wellhead they have just installed, while a jet of oil is still going out of it with great strength. A number of burning oil wells and smoke columns can be seen in the background, because the photographer has stopped down the lens to get maximum sharpness all over the frame, shooting at a slow shutter speed. 
© Sebastiao Salgado

Human beings whose names remained secret because of security reasons and whose toil and sweat until preventing the spilling of more oil (millions of barrels of oil were burnt every day)

A Kuwaiti young shepherd taking a flock of sheep to safety, far from the burning oil wells and poisonous smokes. 
© Sebastiao Salgado

made possible the future of thousands of local farmers and shepherds living on the desert,

A landscape of havoc with the desert sands and the highway smeared with oil, very dangerous slicks everywhere and abundant burning oil wells and smoke columns in the background. 
© Sebastiao Salgado

together with the survival of the Kuwaiti oil industry, because other way, fires would have burned for between three and five years before going out on their own.

These men working in teams of ten had to often face flames soaring 300 to 400 feet skyward, wearing protective clothing and sometimes approaching specific areas close to oil well fires in which temperatures reached 200º C.

Two utterly covered in oil firemen have managed to cap an oil well. Very few people in the world were able to do such a highly specialized work like this in which a great previous experience, knowledge and tons of courage are necessary. And they rose to the challenge. The Leica R6 proved to be a formidable photographic tool in the hands of Sabastiao Salgado. Not in vain, this camera follow the fundamental keynote set forth by the genius Marty Forscher (a renowned repairman with tremendous know-how that enabled him to fix cameras from different brands and whose Camera Repair Service at 37  West 47th Street in Midtown Manhattan became a shrine between 1946 and 1987 to many professional photographers, particularly its always thronged counter, in which he often spoke to customers like Mary Ellen Mark, Joel Meyerowitz, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz and so on), according to which a profesional camera should be like a hockey puck, rugged and reliable enough to withstand nearly any possible abuse and still continue to fire away and get usable pictures ( a philosophy also embodied by other superb utterly mechanical 35 mm manual focusing cameras like the Nikon F2, Canon F1, Olympus OM-1, Leica R8 and R9, etc). 
© Sebastiao Salgado     
Furthermore, if putting out the fires is something extremely difficult and risky, capping them once they have been extinguished is even more dangerous, because the oil from the still-spewing wells inevitably will splatter over the firefighters ´ garments, and it can be ignited by static electricity.


Sebastiao Salgado could have used color film to get very spectacular pictures in Kuwait, taking advantage of the contrast of warm colors that are particularly well rendered, deeply saturated and vivid, with great fidelity, by the Macro-Elmarit-R 60 mm f/2 lens with which the Brazilian photographer made most of the images.

© jmse

But Salgado has always been a black and white photographer working with the Kodak-Tri-X 400 film, which was also his choice to do his photographic essay on the burning oil wells in Kuwait.

As a matter of fact, he was already a great expert in this legendary b & w chemical emulsion and had been been able to greatly improve the excellent Kodak D-76 developer, modifying its chemical elements and composition, getting a bit more grey Kodak Tri-X 400 negatives featuring far better detail, specially in the shadow areas, years before Stéphane Cormier, magician of Kodak D-76, managed to get optimum results with Kodak Tri-X 400 in low key areas and mid tones prolonging the development time to create exceedingly rich negatives.

As had happened with his previous picture stories Sahel : The End of the Road (1980) and Other Americas (1986), or when he photographed the coal miners in Dhanbad, Bihar (India) in 1989, using Kodak Tri-X 400 b & w film to also get pictures of Kuwait burning oil wells and the brave firemen striving upon extinguishing them, Salgado focuses more the observer´s attention on the story he wants to tell, with very strong images and framing conveying the crudeness and tension of the scenes, together with the noise and the heat that can be perceived in the blazes with intense grays and blacks.

Therefore, the images making up the Brazilian photographer´s reportage in Kuwait in 1991 were successful in offer a unique aesthetic appearance and look, drawing the utmost from the remarkable potential of Kodak Tri-X 400 film in terms of acutance, formidable rendering of the full gray scale tonal ranges and remarkable level of detail and microcontrast in shadows fairly visible in his large prints handcraftedly made on top-notch baryta photographic paper.

Moreover, the photojournalistic and documentary per excellence b & w film is highly versatile, and aside from its nominal high speed of EI 400 for the time, it can be pushed to EI 800 in standard developers, yielding very good results based on its present but very pleasant grain providing great acutance (id est, visual perception of sharpness), its very wide exposure latitude and a good amount of dynamic range.

And there was a further major factor enhancing the gorgeous image quality of these images : the commendable labor of Dominique Granier, a world-class black and white French printer, who by dint of huge endeavor, expertise and many thousands of working hours was able to feel the light as Salgado captured it, accurately translating it into fabulous king size enlargements on baryta photographic paper, something of extreme difficulty, because of the great production, painstaking attention to detail and huge qualitative standard of the Brazilian photorapher, who always controlled personally, from beginning to end, every production stage of his silver gelatin prints.

© jmse 
At the moment in which Sebastiao Salgado finished his work in Kuwait, he had shot a total of two hundred rolls of 35 mm Kodak Tri-X 400 film.

And Dominique Granier made gorgeous prints from the original 24 x 36 mm format b& w original negatives, managing to bring out maximum detail, obtaining bright and lively images, as well as staying in the shadows, working like a craftsman, proud of his work, very happy helping the photographer, whose satisfaction with his prints is the highest form of recognition.

An artisan of silver halide printing, whose way of doing things had been pioneered during fifties by other alchemists of black and white silver prints on baryta paper like Pierre Gassmann (founder of Picto laboratory in Paris in 1950 and a remarkable printer who worked for Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David Seymour " Chim ", William Klein, Robert Doisneau, Edouard Boubat, Willy Ronies and other renowned photographers), Georges Févre ( a man with amazing skill and the best printer of Picto halcyon days during sixties, seventies and eighties, when he serviced around twenty Magnum photographers, in addition to offering the best night service in the world) and the genius Al Benson (former Director of the Newport School of Photography and who in 1991 had a 47 years experience as a master black and white printer in his firm Al Benson Photographic Services in Costa Mesa, California).

And in the same way as would go on happening throughout the whole photographic career of Sebastiao Salgado with other reportages made by him, the pictures he created in Kuwait in 1991 expressed by themselves a need to produce reference-class prints based on the exceptional virtues of baryta paper (particularly the Ilford Warmtone 255 g with selenium bath mostly used by Dominique Granier) regarding incomparable long preservation, subtlety of rendering and exceedingly beautiful grayscale.


Early 2016, twenty-five years later.

© jmse

Sebastiao Salgado is in full introspection in Paris, remembering the reportage he made in Kuwait in 1991 and suddenly feels that it would be great to do a book including the cream of the crop of those pictures, showing them with an awesome quality of reproduction approaching as much as possible to the gelatin silver prints made by Dominique Granier for exhibitions.

The arrival of digital technology during early XXI Century and its conquest of the photographic market, greatly replacing analog photography, has brought with it a boom in photobooks boasting an amazing evolution, gorgeous appearance and qualitative increase of pictures reproduction, a real quantum leap in a number of significant aspects.

This way, there are in 2016 a raft of new creative possibilities that didn´t exist in 1991 regarding the design of top-notch photobooks and a myriad of choices as to sizes, paper qualities, layout of text and pictures, impact of covers, etc, all of them in synergy with new and state-of-the-art digital photo printing technologies.

Hasselblad Imacon Flextight X5 professional virtual drum scanner. It is able to get unsurpassed quantity of information from Kodak Tri-X black and white 35 mm original negatives, creating extraordinary digital archives preserving the very special look and organic quality of its grain, along with a remarkable level of sharpness, plentiful detail in textures, great tonal range and aesthetic value, in addition to hugely expand the creative and control possibilities in digital darkroom with respect to the analog one. 
© Hasselblad  

 cutting-edge photo printing technologies
In addition, new breakthrough hybrid analog/digital methods for scanning films have reached benchmark levels since 2006 with the Hasselblad Imacon Flextight X5 virtual drum scanner delivering a maximum optical resolution of 8,000 dpi, colour depth of 16 bit and a DMAX of almost 5, with a vertical optical system allowing the CCD to face downwards, creating a glass-free optical path between the original film and the superb Rodenstock lens, guaranteeing the best possible focus on the whole surface of the frame, from center to borders and corners and drawing an unprecedented amount of information from it, so results on subsequently printing are extraordinary.

© jmse

Salgado had realized since late nineties that digital photography would arrive to stay, but he does know that chemical and digital photography are not antagonist, simply different media, whose flawless symbiosis can result in a wonderful digital negative scanned from the original analog one, hugely expanding the creative possibilities and unmatched level of control through the digital darkroom to get the best feasible reproduction of pictures in a photobook.

In addition, Kodak Tri-X 400 with its strong grain structure scans far better than some of the most modern b & w tabular grain films, and the Hasselblad Flextight X5 professional scanner will yield unsurpassed clarity and detail rendition with it, together with an exceedingly faithful reproduction of its tonal range and unique image aesthetics stemming from developing it in Kodak D-76.

But first and foremost, throughout the twenty-five years elapsed since he was in Kuwait on assignment for The New York Times magazine, the most important factor has been a person liking to be in the background, making a silent and discreet but absolutely fundamental work not only for the photographic career of Sebastiao Salgado, but also in his evolution as human being : his wife Lélia Wanick Salgado, who started her love for photography in 1970 and began conceiving and designing vast majority of Sebastiao Salgado´s photography books and all the worldwide exhibitions of his work.

This woman, director of Amazonas Images since 1994, holding a degree in architecture from the Ecole National Supérieure de Beaux and Urbanism at the Paris VII University, founder of Photo Revue and Longue Vue magazines, managing a Magnum Agency gallery and nominated for a Hollywood Oscar Award in 2015 for Best Feature Documentary as producer of The Salt of the Earth, has been Salgado´s lifetime beacon, particularly during the most gruesome moments, of which there were many in Kuwait, wholeheartedly supporting him to go ahead irrespective of the huge difficulties.

Therefore, Lélia Wánick Salgado has been from the very beginning a driving force in herself, with a tremendous discipline, organization ability, quickness and accuracy of thought, as well as developing an outstanding insight on the photographic market circumstances, becoming a flow of ideas in crunch time.

Moreover, after watching millions of images, she has become a remarkable picture editor with a gift for choosing the most defining photographs made by his husband for books, exhibitions, collectors´ prints and so on.

And in 2016, Sebastiao Salgado and his wife Lélia Wanick were already a team with remarkable expertise and cohesion gleaned during 35 years working together in the photographic scope since 1981.

Both of them shared a common fundamental aim fostered by their meticulous eye: the creation from the best possible original negatives of prints in large sizes, oozing exceptional tonal nuances and level of detail in shadows, as a form of visual communication and developing printing techniques to match their respective visions, personally supervising and utterly controlling every stage to assure that the pictures convey the intended meaning.

And according to that image ontology,

© jmse

Sebastiao Salgado, with the help of his wife Lélia Wánick, decided in 2016 to create two masterpiece photobooks encompassing the best pictures made in Kuwait, enhanced with all the aforementioned ingredients stemming from the hybrid analog/digital techniques, and approaching as much as possible to the reference-class standard of quality of worldwide exhibitions and king size prints for collectors:

Cover of the landmark photobook A Desert on Fire (Limited Edition), one of the pinnacle works ever made in its genre. 
© Taschen Books

a) Kuwait : A Desert on Fire (Limited Edition), a collector´s edition of 1,000 copies,  in impeccable 45 x 41 cm grand-scale size, with 188 pages, museum quality reproduction of the photographs, highly informative accompanying text shedding light on the content,

© Taschen Books

and each one being numbered and signed by Sebastiao Salgado,
Though the eye of the photographer, his experience and to be at the adequate place and moment, along with the accuracy on pressing the shutter release button of the camera to capture meaningful instants are by far the most important factors to get a good picture, it isn´t less true that the Macro-Elmarit-R 60 mm f/2.8 lens absolutely lacking flare and performing exceptionally in distinguishing the subtle tonal differences in light or shaded areas (even with high contrast, specially with the Kodak Tri-X 400 film) was very valuable to create in 1991 the kind of original black and white negatives Salgado wished to either subsequently make sensational large prints on baryta paper or get an exceptional quality of reproduction in photobooks on his reportage in Kuwait. 
© Taschen Books

a real artwork featuring a comprehensive choice of 83 exceedingly beautiful black and white pictures.

© Taschen Books

b) Kuwait : A Desert on Fire standard edition, with dimensions of 30 x 2.8 x 32.6 cm, 208 pages including the same 83 breathtaking black and white images with superb quality of reproduction and texts with the lowdown on the pictures.

Both photobooks were a golden brooch for the photographs that Sebastiao Salgado made in Kuwait a quarter of a century before.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you Mr. Serrano Esparza for your excellent work and the details on this great book. I will now look thru my copy with fresh eyes!