Book review: ‘The Scent of a Dream: Travels in the World of Coffee’, by Sebastiao Salgado

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‘The Scent of a Dream: Travels in the World of Coffee’, by Sebastian Salgado, first edition, Abrams, late- 2015

It’s been a little while since I last reviewed a book, and a surprisingly a much longer while since today’s subject put out what was supposedly his last work – ‘Genesis’ (2013). Genesis’ challenge was that its scope was massive (a decade-plus of work, covering umpteen continents and locations) and it had been played up to the point that expectations were extremely high. Accompanied by a massive travelling exhibition with a huge number of large prints – you really got the sense that the images were meant to be viewed in that format over the book, and perhaps that we were missing something from his previous work by viewing it smaller. Unfortunately, this proved to be mostly not the case: whilst the impact of the prints was definitely wonderful, anything remotely approaching an intimate examination revealed serious shortcomings in printing and huge inconsistencies in post processing. There were also so many images that the whole thing felt like it could have used a bit more curation; understandably the output from a lifetime magnum opus would be huge, but even with the audience giving you the benefit of the doubt – there’s only so many images you can fully appreciate before hitting saturation. At least the lighting was nice.

Which is one of the reasons I’ve come to the conclusion that the book format is probably best for Salgado’s work; it allows you to take a (coffee) break between, ruminate, and come back to it. The smaller print sizes also make the differences in era/style/technique less jarring. Genesis was supposedly meant to be Salgado’s last big project, but it turns out he had another surprise either in curation or production: a commission by Andrea Illy, of Illycaffe notoriety, to document the origins and production process of his product. It turns out this was a very good fit for so many reasons: Salgado coming from a family who owned a plantation, then subsequently starting his own career in the International Coffee Organisation and being intimately familiar with the parts of the developing world where coffee is produced. (Yet oddly he claims not to drink it).

The Scent of a Dream is clearly a project of a) defined scope and b) much less ambitious reach than Genesis, and it shows, in a good way. Whilst Genesis spans such a long period of Salgado’s career that you can actually see his thinking and shooting process (and output) change from film to early digital to ‘mature’ digital – The Scent of a Dream is much more consistent in both style/presentation and message. I think it helps immensely that the curation has a much tighter structure: it simply follows the logical steps involved in producing coffee from planting to roasting and early distribution across the world; covering Africa, South America, India, Indonesia and China, which shows sufficient diversity but avoids being repetitive or verbose. Unsurprisingly, these are also the plantations from which Illy coffee is sourced. Consumption is left out, but given the potentially massive scope here (and risk of appearing overly commercial) – this was probably a sensible choice.

From a production standpoint, it’s a nice volume: linen cover binding (no dust jacket) and surprisingly light for its size (this is a fairly big book, but I suspect paper density is a little lower). The paper itself is matte and nicely toothy, and ink application is dense and rich. It still looks like digital offset as you can see fine halftone dots if you look closely, but it’s amongst the best of its kind I’ve seen. Interestingly – even though the images look digital, there’s still something filmic about them as the added noise pattern seems to play quite nicely with the halftones. Moreover, Salgado (or more likely, his production team) have learnt from Genesis and given The Scent of a Dream much better postprocessing consistency; the images are reminiscent of his earlier style, but with more control, and no longer a clumsy ‘Salgado filter’ turned up to 11.

I have to admit that the choice of title is a slightly perplexing one: it’s ‘the dream’ part that I have some trouble reconciling. I think it’s related to Salgado’s childhood and formative years, or perhaps alluding to the feelings evoked when we ourselves smell a good cup of coffee or some freshly ground beans. The mood of images in this book is definitely lighter and more positive than his other work, even if the presentation style and light are the same. I suspect this has a lot to do with the careful curation to ensure a lack of any long faces. The landscapes have a more idyllic and idealistic quality to them, and the people appear content – for want of a better word. I suppose this is the commercial side of Salgado showing itself: nobody wants to have unhappy or negative associations with their morning cup.

Overall, I can’t help but feel that The Scent of a Dream is a much better place to end his career than Genesis; it just feels more intimate, more hopeful and nicely closes the circle of both his life and provides a link between the both kind of work Salgado is known for and something we personally can identify with in day to day life. It lacks the wow or awe factors of the huge Genesis prints, but also doesn’t leave you feeling that the set would have been stronger with fewer images. I can only wonder if the images would have been different if he did actually drink coffee… MT

‘The Scent of a Dream: Travels in the World of Coffee’, by Sebastian Salgado is available here from Amazon.

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