Q & A with Photographer Edward Burtynsky

By FRANCA TOSCANO via Blouin Artinfo

Salt Pan #13, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016, Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky is a landscape photographer of a very particular kind: he shoots landscapes and natural settings that have been excavated, cut up, and often gutted by mankind, all in the name of progress. The 63-year-old Canadian is being honored at the Photo London fair (May 17-20) with a tribute and special exhibition featuring his latest work. Modern Painters interviewed him before the fair.

What does your being honored as the “Master of Photography” at Photo London mean to you?

London has historically not been as active as Paris when it comes to showing and collecting photography. What’s interesting about Photo London is that it seems that London has embraced it quite aggressively. There were attendance records set last year. It seems that it’s caught hold.

The Tate has started doing a lot more work with photography. The Royal Academy has had some great photography shows. And if one looks at the history of photography, so many [British] photographers in the beginning went around the world capturing large format images. So Britain has had a very deep and significant history with photography.

As a child, you had early exposure to a General Motors plant site in your hometown of Saint Catharines, Ontario, and that stayed with you. Why?

As I was growing up, my father worked there on the production lines. Then they had a forge plant there. It was very loud — you could hear it halfway across the city.

When I was 7, GM decided to do an open house where kids and families could go through. [Beyond] that wall with no windows, I got to see where my father worked. I saw molted metal going down chutes and creating engine blocks, and guys in aluminum suits. I suddenly realized this world that was on the other side, that I had no idea of.

That made me realize that there’s this world that creates the world we take for granted when we jump in a plane or hop in a car — the complex world of machines and robots etc., engaged in creating objects of our daily existence. I became interested in, somehow, through the camera, being that go-between: getting on the other side of that world, and showing the places those materials come from, the mines of copper and iron ore on the other side of barbed-wire fences.

Most of my work doesn’t show disaster aesthetics. These are all intentional landscapes or international factories that are making or doing something. This is business as usual. I’m just trying to be the mediating eye between those worlds and we in the urban environment who now experience these places, albeit through the photographic or filmic process.

It seems a paradox that you should cast a critical eye on the world that your father worked in.

My father passed away when I was 15. Back when he was working there, it was the early 1950s. At that time, progress was seen as a positive force, employing everyone, giving everyone an opportunity.

It was also a time of fairly horrific environmental degradation. A lot of the new things being invented through science and engineering or chemistry were often being poured off into the rivers or not being treated properly. We were creating things that were very negative — DDT or PCD oils — and we had no idea that they had deep, persistent consequences in the environment. We were more naive.

Even when I was younger, it was a more naive period. As we began to recognize that these pollutants remained in the environment and that the burning of fossil fuels was shifting planetary temperature, there was a realization that human activity was having a planetary effect.

When did you yourself become aware of that?

Twenty-five to 30 years ago. I started looking into and hearing more and more about carbon dioxide and concentrations from the atmosphere that were going to start changing our climate. I began to understand that something had changed, and that we were in a great escalation.

When I was born, there were 2.5 billion people on the planet, and now there are 7.5 billion. That’s almost 100 million [additional] people a year, or 1 billion people a decade. This is unprecedented population growth. We’re the top predator on the planet and are proliferating at a level that’s never happened to the planet. We’re capable of tipping the planet into another epoch.

I still don’t quite understand when it all clicked — when you had your eureka moment of deciding ‘this is what I want to photograph.’

My Eureka moment happened in 1981. Before that I was almost tipping my hat back to the modernist period, the Edward Weston and Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter period, finding abstracts within the landscape, going around on trips at certain times of year — particularly in the spring or late fall, when the landscape was in quarter colors.

Then I ended up in this place in Pennsylvania, and saw coal-mining regions where the whole area was disrupted. I went on a hill, and within a 360-degree radius everything was disruption and change. I looked at these mining images and thought, “This is more relevant to the time that I live in, to the collective impact we can have on the landscape.” I stopped becoming a landscape photographer.

What would more accurately describe me would be a photographer of large human systems in the landscape — urban expansions, mines, deforestation, highway infrastructure, dams: all the things that we build and all the ways in which we reshape what was there to our needs. That became my obsession. I recognized in 1982-3 that it was a big enough idea that I could pretty much dedicate my entire career to it.

Your compositions are still very painterly.

I agree. I was influenced by Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, by Jasper Johns, and even by earlier painters like Caspar David Friedrich. When I went to the mines, I would go to 30 of them and keep looking at them until I found the place where the framing or the composition would transcend the banality of reality.

Before I got my first camera at age 11, my father was an avid amateur artist, and he liked painting, in particular with oils. He got me to start painting when I was very young. I was always interested in making art. I’ve always felt that when I’m creating stuff, I feel my most alive.

When I got a camera, I thought, “Hey, I can go around, walk in a countryside or city, frame it in one click and have it in one image. This is so much faster and more fun than standing in front of a canvas for two weeks.” I could hang out with my friends and create things and have this freedom, not sit there in front of a painting trying to fix the sky.

I focused on taking pictures and working in the darkroom and fell in love with it. It’s real magic when you put a negative in the enlarger and an image emerges in a tray.

I never thought I could ever make a living at or be able to find a way to make a life out of it. It was only through a lot of encouragements from certain people, chances that happen that all of a sudden I found myself at a GM plant in St. Catharine’s. I photographed old abandoned factories around there.

Do you do any “manipulation” or are those real colors?

I don’t do Photoshop as a compositional tool. I don’t rearrange, put things that weren’t there, or cut and paste. My lenses will have some multi-coatings that might enhance the color a bit. I might put a polarizing filter to minimize the glare. I’m trying to get back to the [real] color.

Is your photography stirring policymakers into action?

I think it joins a larger chorus of concerned citizens, whether scientists or artists or politicians, who really are beginning to understand that we don’t have a lot of time. The consequences are dire. We’ll be judged by what we do today by generations 30, 40 or 50 years from now.

The time is now. The more voices and the more awareness, the better. I just see myself as part of a growing group of voices pointing to the fact that we have a problem on our spaceship.

— This article appears in the May 2018 edition of Modern Painters.