Edward Burtynsky, OC (born February 22, 1955) is a Canadian photographer and artist known for his large-format photographs of industrial landscapes. Burtynsky’s most famous photographs are sweeping views of landscapes altered by industry: mine tailings, quarries, scrap piles. The grand, awe-inspiring beauty of his images is often in tension with the compromised environments they depict.
Exploring the Residual Landscape
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.
His series Oil (2009) resolves an epiphany he had in 1997, when he realised just how tightly connected all of our global activity was to petrol and its raw material – oil.
The monograph is divided into three sections:
- images of extraction and refinement;
- the consumption of oil and motor culture;
- abandoned ‘oilfields run dry’ and motor vehicles of all descriptions resigned to huge scrap heaps.
The images within Oil evoke a terrifying sense of the sublime. It is within the third section that the images have their most potent effect, for instance seemingly endless rows of impotent, rusting fighter jets in Arizona, or a channel cutting through a canyon of stacked worn car tyres in California. Some of the most striking images are those made at the Chittagong ship breakers in Bangladesh. The proportions of the structures that the workers pick apart, almost by hand, are awesome, and just as affecting are the horrendous conditions in which they work. Although not overtly critical in any explicitly rhetorical sense (i.e. like Kennard’s montages), it is impossible to read Burtynsky’s position as anything but one of grave concern for our consumption of this valuable substance.
Some images in Burtynsky’s Oil can be interpreted from different perspectives: great stacks of compressed oil drums or bits of car parts might speak of excess and consumption but, whilst they refer to manufacturing in a past tense, these are also the raw materials for current industries, ready to be melted down and turned into new things.
He has made several excursions to China to photograph that country’s industrial emergence, and construction of one of the world’s largest engineering projects, the Three Gorges Dam.
Burtynsky discussing his work made in China
Burtynsky was born in St. Catharines, Ontario. His parents had immigrated to Canada in 1951 from Ukraine and his father found work on the production line at the local General Motors plant. Burtynsky recalls playing by theWelland Canal and watching ships pass through the locks. When he was 11, his father purchased a darkroom, including cameras and instruction manuals, from a widow whose late husband practiced amateur photography.With his father, Burtynsky learned how to make black-and-white photographic prints and together with his older sister established a small business taking portraits at the local Ukrainian center. In the early ’70s, Burtynsky found work in printing and he started night classes in photography, later enrolling at the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.
From the mid-1970s to early 1980s, Burtynsky formally studied graphic arts and photography. He obtained a diploma in graphic arts from Niagara College in Welland, Ontario, in 1976, and a BAA in Photographic Arts (Media Studies Program) from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, Ontario, in 1982.
His early influences include Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eadweard Muybridge, and Carleton Watkins, whose prints he saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early 1980s. Another group whose body of work shares similar themes and photographic approaches to Burtynsky’s work are the photographers who were involved in the exhibition New Topographics.
- 1983 – 1985 Breaking Ground: Mines, Railcuts and Homesteads, Canada, USA
- 1991 – 1992 Vermont Quarries, USA
- 1997 – 1999 Urban Mines: Metal Recycling, Canada Tire Piles, USA
- 1993 – Carrara Quarries, Italy
- 1995 – 1996 Tailings, Canada
- 1999 – 2010 Oil Canada, China, Azerbaijan, USA
- 2000 – Makrana Quarries, India
- 2000 – 2001 Shipbreaking, Bangladesh
- 2004 – 2006 China
- 2006 – Iberia Quarries, Portugal
- 2007 – Australian Mines, Western Australia
- 2009 – 2013 Water Canada, USA, Mexico, Europe, Asia, Iceland, India
Video: Manufactured Landscapes
In 2006, Burtynsky was the subject of the documentary film, Manufactured Landscapes, that was shown at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.
Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal, who was his director on the 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes, are co-directors of the 2013 documentary film, Watermark. The film is part of his five-year project Water focusing on the way water is used and managed.
Most of Burtynsky’s exhibited photography (pre 2007) was taken with a large format field camera on large 4×5-inch sheet film and developed into high-resolution, large-dimension prints of various sizes and editions ranging from 18 x 22 inches to 60 x 80 inches. He often positions himself at high-vantage points over the landscape using elevated platforms, the natural topography, and more currently helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Burtynsky describes the act of taking a photograph in terms of “The Contemplated Moment”, evoking and in contrast to, “The Decisive Moment” of Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 2007 he began using a high-resolution digital camera.
The Long Now Foundation
In July 2008 Burtynsky delivered a seminar for the Long Now Foundation entitled “The 10,000 year Gallery”. The foundation promotes very long-term thinking and is managing various projects including the Clock of the Long Now, which is a clock designed to run for 10,000 years. Burtynsky was invited by clock designer Danny Hillis to contribute to the Long Now project, and Burtynsky proposed a gallery to accompany the clock. In his seminar, he suggested that a gallery of photographs which captured the essence of their time, like the cave paintings at Lascaux, could be curated annually and then taken down and stored. He outlined his research into a carbon-transfer process for printing photographs that would use inert stone pigments suspended in a hardened gelatine colloid and printed onto thick watercolour paper. He believes that these photographs would persist over the 10,000 year time-frame when stored away from moisture.