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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Edward Burtynsky


Burtynsky - quarry

Edward Burtynsky has been called the Ansel Adams of the ruined landscape. He creates large, stunningly beautiful images of nature…but not the organic nature celebrated by Adams. Burtynsky describes the essential theme of his photography as "nature transformed through industry."

Using a large format camera, he photographs the detritus of industrial civilization. The abandoned quarries, the strip mines, the chemical waste, the salvage yards and piles of scrap metal and tire yards. The scars left by our consumer-based culture. Nature…transformed…through industry.

Yet Burtynsky’s work doesn’t act as a ‘message’ about the horrific things humankind has done…and continues to do…to the environment. There is nothing overtly political about his photographs. His work is not didactic; any education that takes place as a result of his work takes place at the viewer’s end. In fact, Burtynsky has been criticized by some environmental activists. Why? Because his work is too beautiful. Because he merely observes; he doesn’t condemn. He reveals nature transformed through industry.

The viewer experiences a variety of contradictory emotions…admiration, distress, pleasure, sorrow, delight, anger, amazement, shame. Burtynsky has openly acknowledged this incongruity. In his artistic statement he says, "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." Humans are a meddling species; we have always imposed ourselves on the landscape. Thousands of years ago we began to cultivate and domesticate grains, encouraging the plants we wanted to grow and discouraging the ones we didn’t; today we cut down thousands of acres of old growth hardwood trees and replace them with soybeans. Thousands of years ago we removed gravel from creek beds; today we remove gravel through open pit mining. There is a logical progression in the way humans have transformed nature through industry.

Burtynsky - mine

Burtynsky was born in 1955 in Ontario, Canada. He is the son of an auto worker who died young from cancer (possibly a result of exposure to PCBs). Burtynsky himself worked in the same auto factory as his father before earning degrees in photography and graphic arts from Ryerson University and Niagara College. In 2004 he was named as one of the three inaugural winners of the TED prize (the other winners were medical inventor Robert Fischell and musician/activist Bono). The TED prize awards the winner US$100,000 and "three wishes to change the world." Burtynsky’s three wishes all revolve around getting people engaged in a conversation about how we have transformed nature through industry.

Burtynsky - tires