Edward Burtynsky

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Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky, the St. Catharines, Ontario-born photographer whose art documents the eternal process — the before, during and after — of the things we consume.

"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."


A new CBC documentary examines photographer Edward Burtynsky’s industrial landscapes

“What I wanted to do was start with Ed’s work as a departure point and have our footage extend the narratives that are inherent in those photographs,” says Jennifer Baichwal, the director of Manufactured Landscapes. “I wanted to try to recreate the visceral experience I always had standing in front of one of Ed’s photographs, which was like meditating on my impact on the planet by living here.”

“The still image does tell a story to an extent, but that expanded frame, the ability to go into time and space, is something that only happens with film,” says Burtynsky. “And a film opens up my work to a new range of people. Once your work gains momentum in the world, it sits in a museum or a gallery environment and that’s a pretty narrow band of society.”

Reaching the largest possible audience is more the concern of an activist than an artist, and Burtynsky clearly sees himself as the latter. He admits his imperfections. “I fly. I drive. There is silver in my film,” he says. “I know that I’m culpable, and I know that what we’ve created is not sustainable, it’s fraying at the edges. You can go from denial, and step right into despair, or you can go from denial — which is how most of us live — into hope.”

To that end, Burtynsky lends his images to a non-profit organization called Worldchanging.com and is developing a program to teach young kids about sustainability.

“[My] daughters are eight and 12,” he says. “We take them into the country all the time and they run free. They go in the creek and catch frogs, and we always want them to know nature. We want them to see how they fit in.”