Nickel Tailings # 30, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996 Photo © Edward Burtynsky
Edward Burtynsky has been acclaimed as one of Canada’s most respected photographers. His specialty is photographs of global industrial landscapes, and they have been showcased in 15 major museums around the world. In a statement, Burtynsky talks about his explorations:
“Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.
These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire — a chance at good living — yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.”
Burtynsky’s work can be unsettling. He extracts beautiful, sometimes poetic images from outrageous alterations and destructions of the environment. He calls himself an artist – not a reporter – and refrains form judging what he photographs or from politicising it, wanting to “make people think harder about our planet’s future” without suggesting a direction.
Rock of Ages No. 15, Active Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont 1992 Photo © Edward Burtynsky
Last weekend I saw Manufactured Landscapes, a beautifully shot and edited film, exploring the aesthetics and social and spiritual dimensions of globalisation around the world today. Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal follows Edward Burtynsky to Bangladesh and China as he documents the “manufacturer to the world”. There, Burtynsky, has photographed factories, huge container ports, quarries, the Three Gorges Dam, electronics graveyards, and the rapid urbanization of Shanghai.
The film presents a truly unsettling look at comtemporary existence and it illustrates how, as we transform nature, we redefine who we are and our relationship to the planet.