The Masterful Eye of Edward Burtynsky

Two things strike me the most when I look at Edward Burtynsky’s photographs. One, that he has devoted decades of his career to the pursuit of capturing industrial landscapes all over the world, and two, that he does so with a discerning eye like no other.

Edward Burtynsky in front of his photo of oil drums.

Edward Burtynsky in front of his photograph, Densified Oil Drums # 4, Hamilton, Ontario, 1997. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

At his public talk at the Museum on May 30, Burtynsky treated the crowd to a slide presentation of many of his best works generated over his 30-year career. Having seen and been duly impressed with all the photos in his current show on Oil at our Museum, I was eager to see the ones from his earlier days: Manufactured Landscapes, Burtynsky – Quarries, and Burtynsky – China.

His images of quarries and mines are mesmerizing. He refers to them as structural inversions—one of them so deep (a quarry in Portugal) that we experienced something close to vertigo just staring across the room at the slide. Some of them look like grand stadiums; the roads spiralling down to the bottom appear like seating for invisible spectators. Burtynsky pointed out a train on one of the roads, and even a yellow bus. But my aging eye could not detect the bus in this panoramic shot of the copper mine.

Edward Burtynsky photo of Kennecott Copper Mine in Utah.

Kennecott Copper Mine, Bingham Valley, Utah 1983. Image: Edward Burtynsky © Edward Burtynsky

It’s not surprising that Burtynsky loves the lines; the engineered lines in these man-altered landscapes dominate the still photos. In his Quarries series, you notice the lines first.

The lines are also remarkable in his new Water series, especially in photos showing a long, man-made canal bisecting the landscape, cleanly separating desert from urban development. There are shots of affluent communities in Florida neatly built to provide (false) waterfront to each residence. It was a treat to see many of his Water images in advance of the exhibition début this fall in New Orleans.

From skyscrapers in Hong Kong to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Burtynsky has produced an enormous collection of photographic work over the years depicting how humans have changed their environments. I’m impressed with how articulate and knowledgeable he is about the context and history behind his photographic subjects. And he identifies connections that we all have to them; to oil, the products from mining, and to water.

Edward Burtynsky photo of a deep quarry in Portugal.

Iberia Quarries # 8, Cochicho Co., Pardais, Portugal, 2006. Image: Edward Burtynsky © Edward Burtynsky

His strategy right from the beginning has been to create images that are ambiguous and tell many different narratives. But he adds that most people do understand the common narrative of human expansion in his photographs and that we are in a “situation of overreach”. It’s a cautionary tale of consequence. Our future is linked to these landscapes and what we do. As he drew his presentation to a close, he added: We’re depleting things rapidly and time is not on our side.”

Edward Burtynsky: Oil is on view at the Museum until September 2, 2013. The 56 photographs are divided into sections called Extraction and Refinement, Transportation and Motor Culture and The End of Oil. My personal favourite is the one showing colourful, densified oil drums. It’s so beautiful that I almost forget that these oil drums formerly served an unglamourous purpose other than art. That is the genius of Burtynsky’s work and his masterful eye.

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