By FRANCA TOSCANO via Blouin Artinfo 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…
ARTISTS ARE ALWAYS willing to share the bounty of the view in ways that forever reinforce and redirect our forever-wandering gaze, thus narrowing the passage of our distraction. Perhaps in an effort to jar us into looking more closely at the aftermath of progress, Canadian Edward Burtynsky presents a series of color photographs collectively titled “Intentional Landscapes” at Arthur Roger Gallery that defy orientation and require detailed titles to let us know just where and what we are looking at in the picture window images.
STARTING IN THE 1990S, advances in digital technology made it easier for photographers to print their work at previously unimaginable sizes. The result was a golden age of vast pictures—typified by the work of artists such as Andreas Gursky—with the kind of impact previously limited to painting or films. But in these social-media–saturated times, when we’re constantly thumbing through palm-size images shared freely on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, is there still a meaningful place for photographs measured in feet? For Edward Burtynsky and Robert Polidori, two of today’s most esteemed practitioners of large-scale photography, the answer is unequivocally yes.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: IMMACULATE surfaces, varied lines and shapes, contrasts and harmonies of color, rhythms and textures evoking an elusive sense of the familiar, of mystery, wonder, and delight in the interplay between precision and ambiguity, abstract patterns, designs, and suggestions of the representational with the possibility of evolving into the beautiful, the sublime, and the merely interesting that, as photography, challenges Benjamin’s lament of the destruction of aura ‘in the age of mechanical reproduction’. At first the exhibit seems a visual extravaganza without any apparent unifying theme, a polysemous conflation of works by different artists, even though the title clearly states that these are photographs from Edward Burtynsky’s Water Series. Slowly one focuses on individual photographs, responding to each on its own terms, and only then developing some understanding of visual and conceptual interrelationships within and among through shared associations and significant differences as the overwhelming initial reaction (if they were not contained within the solid black frames they might fly away) evolves into a sense of coherence.
The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has rolled out his “Water” project this fall with the synergistic marketing aggression of a Hollywood blockbuster. Seven galleries in six cities and three countries have been selling gigantic examples of the work, which offers his global perspective on water and civilization. Some prints are 10 feet across. “Watermark,” a feature-length documentary he co-directed with Jennifer Baichwal, has opened in select cities across Canada. The big, handsome and pricey catalog ($128), published by Steidl, even has an interactive iPad app.
In south Louisiana, we know a thing or two about water. Not only are we surrounded by it, the air we breathe is often permeated with it, so our relationship with water is intimate. But intimate relationships often have elements of surprise, and while Edward Burtynsky’s photographs, which occupy two floors of gallery space at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), are often too spectacular to be truly intimate, they do pack a tsunami of surprises. His sweeping amphibious landscapes, whether all natural or shaped by human intervention, can be startlingly abstract, and if the proliferation of large-scale photographs in recent years has already shown us how painterly such images can be, many of Burtynsky’s works bear a striking resemblance to abstract canvases.
Throughout his career, photographer Edward Burtynsky has been on a quest to capture the impact humans have on the natural landscape. “Nature transformed through industry” is how he puts it. Burtynsky has photographed e-waste recycling facilities in China, nickel tailings in Ontario, railways cutting through the forests of British Columbia, quarries in Vermont and mines in Australia. He has also turned his lens to suburban sprawl, highways, tire piles, oil fields and refineries.
Water covers 70 per cent of the surface of the planet and even when you can’t see it, it’s there – under your feet, as vapour in the air, buoying the 1.4-kilogram heft of your brain as it sloshes inside your skull. So when Torontonians Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky decided four years ago to make a feature-length documentary on something as immense and various as water, they knew they would be climbing a slippery slope. Or, as Baichwal put it in a recent interview, “testing how far can you take an idea, a multifaceted subject, and explore it without having it fall apart into complete generalities.”
Edward Burtynsky is known as one of Canada’s most respected photographers. His remarkable photographic depictions of global industrial landscapes are included in the collections of over fifty major museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in California.