Edward Burtynski, born 1955 of Ukrainian heritage in St. Catharines (Ontario, Canada) is well known for his unique style of capturing and contemplating his environment. He studied Photography/Media Studies in Ryerson University and graduated 1982. His works are included in permanent collections of over sixty museums such as Guggenheim Museum in New York, Museum of Modern Art, Reina Sophia Museum in Madrid etc. Photography is his way of communicating his thoughts and concerns he has towards
landscapes modified by mankind. What was his motivation?
Burtynski’s beginning as a photographer was strongly influenced by his immediate surrounding. As a
Canadian nature accompanied him since his childhood in a particular way; he experienced the untouched nature, a nature being in a transient mode. He perceived the geological time, going on for long time and he asserts that humans experience nature in a different way. This important feature marking his childhood was a reference point for his work. Moreover he is concerned about the way existing natural landscapes are transforming by us into manufactured polluted landscapes, harming the environment in which we live. Burtynski reflects about how to rethink landscape, but how?
On a trip to Pennsylvania 1983, Burtynski lost the track and arrived to a coal-mining town called Frackville. He was blown away by the landscape fully transformed by man. A new created massive amphitheatre like landscape has been created in order to harvest nature’s raw materials. His ambivalence of being fascinated and shocked led him realise how he wants to interact as a photographer. This moment in his life marks the baseline for his work. From there on, his work was clearly dominated by manufactured landscapes and their effects on nature and human.
Before moving on to his working methods and projects, it is important to mention what kind of cameras
Burtynski uses. His first camera was a Linhof 5x4 inch using it for nearly thirty years. Using a tripod for
capturing precise and clear pictures, Burtynski created a more face-to-face interaction between observer and landscape. After 2009, he decided to change for a Hasselblad H3D being more adequate for aerial photography. There is a change of how Burtynski nets his ambiance. From a rather more human scale, he changes into a bird’s eye perspective, showing from above the manufactured landscapes.
His life’s work, exploring human and natural circumstances, can be seen as a sort of research. Burtynski ‘looks at industrial landscape as a way defining who we are in our relationship to our planet’. He wants to understand his environment and to act against the uneasy contradiction of being dependent on nature and the concern for the health of the Earth. Furthermore he criticizes the collective appetite and consequences of our behavior. Our world is hypnotized by desire and the world is suffering of our success. Burtynski gets ‚sober‘ when he has to think about our current circumstances.
Therefore he uses a specific method to his surrounding; his jolie / laide (beautiful/ugly) style can be characterized by means of capturing subjects rich in detail and scale which are selected carefully in order to show our contemporary issues.
His images are metaphors of our modern existence. Burtynski creates through photography in his images a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. The audience should not feel rejected, they should rather experience fear and pleasure at the same time. Outsiders should be able to understand the message without only feeling fear. Burtynski is extremely careful about the way he is transmitting his thoughts and developed his own style. So how did he advanced his methods?
We will have thus a look to selected works. In the 1980’s and 1990’s Burtynski rather concentrated mainly on North America with exception of Italy and Portugal. He outlined his homeland and illustrated the way industrialization manufactured the ’untouched nature’. His early work can be regarded as a documentary of the ever-changing environment. His shoots of ’Ferrous Bushling’ in Hamilton, Ontario dealt with the topic of recycling seen as a redemption to our environmental concerns. He concluded that human activity combined by the idea of sustainability are the solution to our problem.
In 2000, Burtynski travels to Bangladesh, a country characterized by famine, poverty and pollution. This is his first time to travel to the Third World. He was shocked about the current conditions how people lived in a landscape influenced through our desire to consume. He shooted a ship breaking scene in Chittagong. Locals deconstructed the ships with their bare hands. Burtynski began from there on to capture also the conditions of manufacturers in the Third World being force to manufacture the landscape in order to satisfy our needs. He is more than an usual photographer. He wants to transmit his emotions to the observers by selecting particular positions with the camera.
Another important project was his film ’Manufactured Landscapes’ (2006), a documentary of his travels mainly in Asia. One of them is China, a country which has a great impact on industries by the increasing numbers of manufactories, which planned the Three Gorges Dam. It is the biggest dam in China and 600 km around the dam had to be destroyed. This massive transformation shaped the landscape in a dramatic way. The surrounded buildings were demolished by hand done by inhabitants; this transformation was again wanted. The need for power drived the country to change the landscape massively by ignoring the needs of the locals. Burtynski wanted to show the dramatic change and how nature and humans are
suffering due to globalisation. His images document this transformation by showing genuine truth.
He created ’images/places allowing viewers to comprehend the scale, a different kind of landscape‘ through the positioning of the lenses. The observer is transferred to the scene and sees the reality.
After changing his camera, the way how Burtynski examines his surrounding changes too. He changes the scale from a human scale to a bird’s eye view. After ten years humans are not anymore positioned in the images. Landscapes from above captured as picturesque oeuvres become his main interest. The aerial perspective shows a superiority of the photographer towards ordinary people. Burtynski illustrates the beauty and the ugliness of our actions. His ’Pivot Irrigation’ shoots in Texas and Arizona are an remarkable example for interpreting and rethinking the landscapes in a rather abstract and artistic way. Burtynski works now even more consciously with contrasts in his images as for his shoots in Iceland (cf. Dyralaekir river in Myrdalssandur, 2012).
Comparing his previous works with his current methods, Burtynski advanced his techniques and his way of communicating his ideas is striking. In my judgement he unifies research and photography in a harmonious way. The observer feels attracted to his pictures without loosing himself in their beauty.