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Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado captures the struggle of world laborers and shows how the nature of their jobs has changed along with notions of productivity

FOR Sebastiao Salgado, hands are as expressive as faces, and the Brazilian-born photographer zooms in on them.

There are the gloved hands of shipyard workers in Brest, France, and the braceleted hands of canal workers in Rajasthan, India. There are hands wet with blood at a slaughterhouse in South Dakota and with oil on the burning fields of Kuwait. There are blowups of hands clenched behind the backs of men lined up at the payroll office of the SNCF Railroad Network in France, of hands playing dominoes during a break at the Kommunar automobile factory in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, and of hands rolling cigars in Havann a.

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There are hands holding leaves, oars, wheels, shovels, and in one photograph, a gun.

In Dhanbar, Bihar, India, a woman's hand steadies a baby on the back of her husband as he pushes a cart home from the coal mine.

Hands are one of the recurring themes in "Workers," an exhibition of Salgado's photographs currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition is being billed as a celebration of manual labor, but it is a lot more than that. These are pictures of workers; not of work or of people working, but of workers - on the job, but also resting, eating, playing, fighting, dreaming. Work defines what they do, but it isn't all that they do.

Salgado subtitled the exhibition "An Archaeology of the Industrial Age" because he wanted to show how the nature of work has changed along with concepts of production and efficiency. The 250 photographs in the exhibition are the fruits of a seven-year project that took Salgado to some 50 locations, mostly in the third world.

The exhibition is arranged to reflect a historical progression from the pre-industrial occupations of agriculture and fishing through such hybrid enterprises as textiles and meatpacking and then into the full-blown industrialization of the steel age.

Here, Salgado's camera pauses amid the low-tech mechanization of a bicycle factory in Shanghai, then moves on to the mid-level technology of automobile manufacturing, and reaches a crescendo in the shipyards of Poland and France. From there, the camera's course is devolutionary, recording the detritus of all this industry: ship breakers in Bangladesh, undoing what is being done on the opposite wall, and firefighters in Kuwait undoing the damage of the Gulf war.

At times, the photographs evoke paintings - there are elements of Salvador Dali in a Gdansk shipyard, where the head of a man poking through a porthole in the foreground dwarfs the bodies of three co-workers in the background, all in the same plane of focus.

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An image of a family of Brazilian cocoa pickers relaxing in a glade with their dog recalls Paul Gauguin. And there is a trompe l'oeil mastery to a photograph of a baptism in Tolyatti, Russia, where the faces of automobile workers merge eerily with the life-sized faces painted on a mural behind them.

It is striking how often workers blend with their environments. In one of the most beautiful photographs, taken at a textile-processing plant in Kustanai, Kazakhstan, loosely wound bales of raw wool echo the swirls in a woman's skirt as she moves among them.

There is beauty, but there is also danger. Close by a fern-covered slope at Kawah Idjen, Indonesia, a worker hews chunks of sulfur from the crater of the volcano, a shirt pulled over his head and across his face to protect him from the poisonous fumes.

Much of what they do is dehumanizing work, and sometimes their own cultures liken the workers to animals. Salgado observes that in Serra Pelada, where he took some of his most disturbing images, "men who work in the mud and dig for gold are called mud hogs, like pigs who work in dirt and slime." In the steel factories of France and Ukraine, Salgado found a worker called "the ratman: his job is to smell gas, to look for leaks beneath red-hot cauldrons. His job is to find the smell of death."

In Salgado's photographs, however, they are all too human, with a stalwart dignity that transcends the mud and the coal dust. Even for those who appear to be subsumed by their machines - shipyard welders in asbestos suits - the robotic facade is consistently broken by an eye or a smile.

Some of the photographs are candid and journalistic, others are exercises in portraiture, showing the self-conscious pride and vulnerability of the workers.

The prints in the exhibition are several different sizes, enhancing the visual impact, and all of them are black and white, Salgado's preferred medium. The print quality is exquisite, the fine grain and hard contrast emphasizing texture and prompting the viewer to linger and look more closely. In this context, color would only be a distraction.

Salgado, who has won numerous awards for his work and was twice named "Photojournalist of the Year" by the International Center of Photography in New York, originally trained as an economist. In the catalog that accompanies the exhibition, he writes:

"The developed world produces only for those that consume - approximately one-fifth of all people. The remaining four-fifths, who could theoretically benefit from the surplus production, have no way of being consumers. They have transferred so many of their resources and wealth to the prosperous world that they have no way of achieving equality.

"So the planet remains divided, the first world in a crisis of excess, the third world in a crisis of need, and, at the end of the century, the second world - that built on socialism - in ruins."

Salgado has succeeded in chronicling this new, if precarious, order, and the older order that underlies it.

* "Workers" closes in Philadelphia on July 11. It then travels to Louisville, Ky.; Iowa City, Iowa; Dallas; and in 1995, New York.

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