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.