Powerful black-and-white images by one of the world's most important photographers are going on show in London. Sebastião Salgado was born in Aimorés, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil in 1944. He abandoned his career as an economist and switched to photography in 1973.

Over the last 40 years, he has travelled the world, from the ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh to the frozen wastelands of the Arctic.

Sebastiao Salgado, Zavodovski Island, South Sandwich Islands, 2009
Zavodovski Island, South Sandwich Islands, 2009©Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures

Salgado's most famous, early series was taken in 1986 at the controversial Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil, which employed thousands of workers in appalling, perilous conditions. They were published all over the world, and the vertigo-inducing pictures revealed the scale of the Dante-esque hell endured by the miners.

Sebastiao Salgado, Brasil, 1986
Brasil, 1986©Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures

Salgado's photography uses cinematic composition and high-contrast printing to intensify the drama of his subject matter, leaving the viewer in little doubt as to Salgado's politics, his interest in inequality and his passion for ecology – themes that resonate throughout the exhibition.

Sebastiao Salgado, Dinka Cattle Camp, Southern Sudan, 2006
Dinka Cattle Camp, Southern Sudan, 2006©Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures
Sebastiao Salgado, Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, Russia, 2011
Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, Russia, 2011©Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures
Sebastiao Salgado, Refugees At The Korem Camp, Ethiopia, 1984
Refugees at the Korem Camp, Ethiopia, 1984©Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures

Salgado works on personally chosen, long-term projects, taking thousands of images, often over many years. Each series is the result of his total immersion in the subject matter.

This traditional approach to working aligns him with some of history's greatest photojournalists – from Dorothea Lange's four-year project for the USA's Farm Security Administration in the 1930s to Bruce Davidson's two-year sojourn in Harlem's run-down tenement blocks during the 1960s.

Sebastiao Salgado, Oil Wells Firefighter, Greater Burhan, Kuwait, 1991
Oil Wells Firefighter, Greater Burhan, Kuwait, 1991©Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures
Sebastiao Salgado, Church Gate Station, Bombay, India, 1995
Church Gate Station, Bombay, India, 1995©Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures
Sebastiao Salgado, The Brooks Range, Alaska, 2005
The Brooks Range, Alaska, 2005©Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures
Sebastiao Salgado, Iceberg Castle Between Paulet Islands And The South Shetland Islands On The Weddell Sea, 2005
Iceberg Castle Between Paulet Islands And The South Shetland Islands On The Weddell Sea, 2005©Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures
Sebastiao Salgado, Bighorn Creek, Kluane National Park, Canada, 2011
Bighorn Creek, Kluane National Park, Canada, 2011©Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures

He reminds us that the best photography is not usually done to deadlines. What singles Salgado out from his peers is the sheer scale and ambition of the projects.

Beetles+Huxley Gallery in London will host a retrospective exhibition – with more than 40 pictures from Salgado's career – from 8 October to 8 November.