About the Photographer
Canadian, b. 1955
For more than twenty-five years, Edward Burtynsky has photographed humankind's imprint in the landscape, tracking the expansive ripples of industrial activity in various parts of the world. His images, which he prints at a large scale, depict rock quarries and strip mines, oil fields and refineries, factories and recycling yards—places that lie beyond our normal experience yet which provide the materials for our daily lives. In addition to locations where resources are extracted or processed, Burtynsky has also focused on landscapes that provide insight into cycles of production and consumption in more unexpected ways. In the Shipbreaking series (2000-2001), for example, Burtynsky photographed obsolete oil-tankers grounded on the beaches of Bangladesh, where they were being dismanteled to salvage scrap metal.
In his efforts to reflect on the relationship of today's society with the environment Burtynsky builds on a long tradition of photographing the landscape and the human presence within it. In the nineteenth century, practitioners such as Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge photographed in remote locations, aiming to convey the sublime. As those photographers did, Burtynsky works with a large-format camera and his sizable, seductive photographs bring to mind their attempts to express the grandeur of the natural world and the feelings of awe that it could inspire. But Burtynsky puts pressure on the prospect of a modern-day sublime by seeking out, in his words, "subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning." His photographs register a restrained ambivalence, eschewing both a romantic notion of nature and an overtly political message. "These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence," Burtynsky states,
"They search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear." The tension between the aesthetic appeal of the altered landscape and the ominous weight of human evidence in these photographs becomes a pivotal element. In this regard Burtynsky joins contemporaries such as Richard Misrach and David Maisel in using an attention to form and beauty as a means to bring humankind's effect on the environment into view.
In 2002 Burtynsky began photographing in China, where he developed a substantial series of images that address new topics—from steel mills to the country's Three Gorges Dam project—while incorporating subjects that echo his earlier work, such as recycling yards and quarries. The China series extends Burtynsky's on-going concerns at the same time that it suggestively condenses his previous explorations: these photographs offer a multi-faceted glimpse of industrial cycles that are increasingly global in scope, seen here through a cross-section of one rapidly-developing nation. The massive scale of the transformation that has taken place in China is visualized in Burtynsky's photographs of enormous manufacturing plants employing thousands of workers. By using a large-format camera and filling the frame with rows and rows of production lines, the factories and the workers become almost infinite. In some pictures, however, such as Manufacturing #11, Youngor Textiles, Nigbo, Zhejiang Province, China (2005), one person visibly stands out alone. This image, along with certain others in the series, disclose the presence of a personal story behind each of the millions of factory workers and provide a reminder that individuals are implicated in these seemingly autonomous processes.