Creative Destruction

Creative Destruction

Edward Burtynsky’s photographs are large, colorful and mostly ravishing, despite their subjects.


Edward Burtynsky’s photographs are large, colorful and mostly ravishing, despite their subjects. They show seldom-seen industrial landscapes, the places from which resources come to us and to which they go when we’re done with them: mines, oilfields, refineries, quarries, dumps. These places look inhuman, for their scale and for their poisons and hazards, but they’re the landscapes on which most human beings now depend. It may be that industrial civilization is predicated on blindness and alienation, on not knowing that sweatshops or copper mines make your pleasant First World urban/suburban existence possible, for that knowledge would at the least make that existence less pleasant. Certainly most people nowadays would be hard pressed to say where their water comes from or their garbage goes to, let alone their tungsten or their oil tankers. Burtynsky photographs those places with an eye to their aesthetic power.

“Although he understands that modern technologies can have devastating effects on the earth and its ecosystems, he believes that it would be hypocritical of him to use his photographs as a diatribe against industry,” writes Lori Pauli in one of the essays in Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky. But such a statement seems to reflect an old model, in which to be a politically engaged artist you had to foreground your own outrage, engagement, virtue (and certainly ostentatious display of appropriate emotion is part of many performances all along the political spectrum). Facts themselves are political, since just to circulate the suppressed and obscured ones is a radical act. That, for example, an EPA official resigned because under Bush he wasn’t allowed to enforce air quality regulations that would save far more lives than were lost on September 11 and that depleted-uranium armaments pose a threat to the health of US troops as well as Iraqis are stories that subvert the status quo and, not surprisingly, don’t get heard much. Environmental facts can be loaded, and Burtynsky’s certainly are. His photographs reveal with plain-spoken, vivid force that the industrial civilization we have created depends for its existence, from its marble facades to the contents of its gas tanks, on this inhuman scale of desolation and poison that remains largely out of sight. That he chooses to pay attention to these places is already a form of engagement, and the questions a photographer raises may be more profound than the answers the medium permits.

An earlier generation of environmentalist landscape photographers, notably Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams, concentrated on ideal landscapes that came to seem in the end irrelevant, places that were fine because they had nothing to do with us, though these images were, and to a lesser extent still are, useful for conservation politics. In the past quarter-century most photographers have concentrated on some version of the social landscape, on inhabited wildernesses; dystopias; comic, disastrous and mystic engagements with place, land and nature. The three essays in Manufactured Landscapes do what essays in handsome books about artists usually try to do: establish their place in the grand narrative of the history of art.

But the Canadian Burtynsky is more interesting for his divergences from the tradition of American landscape photography. He tells of the incident that launched his current work, a wrong turn that took him to the mining wasteland of Frackville, Pennsylvania, where “in that entire horizon there was nothing virgin. It totally destabilized me. I thought, is this earth? I had never seen anything transformed on this scale…. The pictures I took in Frackville sat as contacts for almost a year. I kept looking at them and then I realized, this is what I have to do…. All the things we inhabit, and all the things we possess, the material world that we surround ourselves with, all comes from nature.” And this is what nature looks like when we wring our material world out of it: luridly red-orange rivers of water saturated with oxidized iron at a nickel quarry, a tire dump whose millions of black donuts become canyons and crevasses and mountains.

Among Burtynsky’s most interesting subjects are marble and granite quarries, the voids in the unseen landscape from which buildings, particularly civic and corporate ones, are extracted (the critic Lucy Lippard has described these as the holes left in rural spaces to create urban erections). These are vertiginous, precarious terrains in which human beings and even their stoneworking machines are tiny. The geometry of architecture is already present in the horizontal and vertical lines and ledges carved into the walls and amphitheaters of stone. The stone is almost monochromatic, but the red and orange equipment in Carrara or a jade-green lake at the bottom of a Vermont quarry and a few yellow aspens on a ledge midway up give scale and relief to the monotony. They also heighten the Piranesi-like terror of these cliffs and abysses.

The photographer Burtynsky most resembles is the Californian Richard Misrach, who also makes breathtaking large color images of overlooked and sequestered places. Military sites in the desert Southwest have been Misrach’s definitive subject, from the abandoned Enola Gay bunker and sheds in Utah to the ammunition-storage berms, bombing ranges and radioactive landscapes of Nevada. A dozen or more years ago, this work was greeted with outrage for “aestheticizing evil”; viewers seemed to want a world in which only the good was beautiful and seductive, and blamed Misrach for the challenges sublime and fascinating evils pose. Misrach was always more interested in testing this kind of tension, and his work differs from Burtynsky’s in its interest in conceptual and philosophical questions–notably the photographic representation of what can’t be seen–and in its tendency to come up with images that have the skies and spaciousness of traditional landscape. (Burtynsky often lets the stuff that is his subject fill the frame, to the exclusion of deep space, horizons and other standard equipment of landscape imagery, but he chooses to represent that stuff and its sites as landscape rather than as labor documentary; his images are seldom populated.) Our culture seems to have grown more sophisticated about the beauty/virtue schisms since Misrach’s bombscapes, but Burtynsky isn’t interested in pushing the contradictions and the politics of representation in the same way. He’s a more straightforward documentarian, though his work is hardly in the documentary mode, at least not in the mode in which a certain aesthetic and emotional remove–including a remove from the sensuality of the world–is part of the equipment. For Burtynsky’s images are beautiful, or rather, like Misrach’s sublime, of the same visually compelling order as forest fires, wartime ruins, floods and other spectacles.

Nowhere are they more so than in his photographs of shipbreaking. These, mostly made in Chittagong, Bangladesh, show the half-dismantled hulks of cargo ships and oil tankers on beaches, huge fragments over which men scramble like ants (apparently, though this is nowhere evident in the images), dismantling them with little more than blowtorches. Often taken in raking light or fog, these photographs depict colossal shards standing up at intervals from dramatic foreground to deep background, the most conventionally landscapelike of Burtynsky’s images (though some also show a facade that fills the image area and approaches abstraction). They are reports back from an unseen world–who in the First World ever thought much about oil tanker recycling?–in which our daily lives are embedded. But they seem almost allegorical–antlike men fragmenting the colossi that are the only relief to that vast, flat expanse.

Although Burtynsky is no advocate, he cares, like Misrach, about his subject matter. This sets him apart from the other photographer he resembles, the much lionized Andreas Gursky (born, like Burtynsky, in 1955). Gursky specializes in huge prints in which antlike human beings seem to inhabit a world–of arena concerts, ski areas, the tiered balconies of hotel lobbies–that we mostly do know (though he too photographed a landfill), and whose alienating and inhuman scale we know better through his images. But Gursky is, comparatively, a formalist, interested in digital manipulation and questions about scale and representation. His commitment is not to the subject.

Burtynsky is starting to approach something that photography could have pursued all along, and maybe did once or twice in the era of the Life photo essay: an inspection of systems rather than places. His oilfields, oil refineries, tire dumps, oil pipelines and dismantled tankers begin to get at the cycle of oil, nasty at every turn even without politics and wars. They aren’t presented that way in the book, but they come together that way in the imagination. A genuinely ecological photography might pursue something along those lines, tracing the life of a commodity from extraction to disposal (Burtynsky’s pale uranium mine site with its dead trees invites this line of investigation, raising as it does the specter of bombs and power plants and nuclear waste disposal). Or it might address what photography has mostly been unwilling to acknowledge: So toxic is the medium itself that Kodak in Rochester–not far from Burtynsky’s Ontario home–is New York State’s number-one polluter, cranking out enough dioxin, along with two and a half million pounds of airborne methylene chloride, to cause more than half a billion cancer deaths in a typical year. This could be why a really thoughtful photographer feels that it would be “hypocritical” to use his photographs as a diatribe against industry.

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