an interview with Edward Burtynsky
There’s a certain resonance in the fact that photographer Edward Burtynsky is seated on the stairwell of a fashionable Harajuku building for this interview. It looks out on a neighborhood that is one of Japan’s—and the world’s—consumer hot spots, a catwalk filled with people in dressed the latest trends and flashing the newest gadgets. Burtynsky’s eyes, grayish and blue, don’t really seem to take it in. He doesn’t do fashion. But he does know a few things about the cost of what he sees.
One of Canada’s leading artists, Burtynsky has traveled to places from where most of our possessions originate, and where they ultimately end up. Over the span of two decades he’s headed into the world’s largest quarries and pits, to immense factories where the assembly lines stretch to the horizon and to vast recycling yards where laborers work with tools unchanged since the Iron Age.
Working with a large-format camera, he’s brought back images that are mesmerizingly beautiful, even as they show the ravages of industrialization on a scale previously unknown. His photos have won him international awards and turned him into the subject of a 2006 documentary, “Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured Landscapes.” Made by fellow Canadian Jennifer Baichwal, the film has been hailed by Al Gore as “extraordinary, haunting, beautiful, insightful and thought-provoking.”
Yet the photographer is no “card-carrying environmentalist”—to use his own phrase. And his words, much like his photographs, are less about shock and awe than they are about measured reflection.
“We are like the smoker who knows cigarettes are bad, but finds it hard to imagine life without them.
“We are, in a global scale, addicted to a certain standard of living, to certain foods and forms of transportation,” says Burtynsky, who flew 6,479 air miles from Toronto to Tokyo in advance of the film’s July 12 opening at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and Image Forum Theatre.
“When I get on a jet and fly somewhere, I understand that I am part of the problem. But at the same time I find some relief in the fact that I am trying to use my work to address it.”
Industry is a lifelong theme for Burtynsky: His father was a factory worker and he put in time at a General Motors plant himself before becoming a landscape photographer. In the beginning, his work idyllicized nature, until industry called him back.
“I was driving and came across a coal-mining area in Pennsylvania, a landscape that had been totally transformed miles upon miles,” he explains. “The colors were very unreal, the whole place was very unreal and a light went off in my head. This landscape is more true to the time that I live in,” he says, than to his original vision.
In “Manufactured Landscapes,” Baichwal’s camera follows Burtynsky through China as he records the country’s breakneck rush to become “the factory to the world.” In it we see that Burtynsky is a perfectionist: At a factory in Zhangzhou he stands on a crane and orchestrates where the workers stand in his shot; at a town being dismantled near the Three Gorges Dam he pays a man with a donkey to retrace his steps through the ruin; and at a recycling town in Guangdong province he directs children to play on a hill of smashed computer components.
There’s a monumental feel to his images. Yet what is more remarkable is how Burtynsky is able to move behind the scenes to get them.
“Almost every place I do is on the other side of barbed wire fences,” he says, and pretty ugly to boot. “So I had to somehow be able to negotiate into those spaces. The whole premise right from the early ’80s was, ‘How do I begin to negotiate into these spaces? How do I position this body of work?’ “I realized I had to stay out of the environmental window. How I describe it to these guys who run these companies is that I am building a compendium of the largest industries on the planet. And I am here because you own the largest quarry that I can find, you own the biggest iron-making factory in the world and I would like this to be part of the body of work. At the end of the day every image I make is the largest example of that industry and you’re at the head.”
Viewers often see his work as part of the environmental movement, Burtynsky says, but he maintains that’s not his agenda.
“The way I get in is I say, ‘Look, I am showing it in a way that allows people to look at it and interpret.’ If it was clearly about indictment and about trying to slam what these people are doing, then it would quickly end my career. If they see that type of position they won’t let you anywhere near, because of course there would be no upside for them.
“What possibly would they get in return for their private business? Nothing if I’m a Greenpeace card carrier. But as an artist, they are curious about how I would see it, what I would see in it, because they can’t see it.”
That comes through poignantly in a central scene in “Manufactured Landscapes,” where Burtynsky is negotiating past the manager into a steel smeltery that could pass for Mordor.
“Look, this place is kind of a dirty dump,” his interpreter says, “but by his photos he’ll make it beautiful.”
Looking through Burtynsky’s photos the manager relents. There’s no denying their beauty—he has no choice but to let them in.