Manufactured Landscapes. As I flipped through the book, the beauty that I saw and the awe that I held for the landscape fell away, replaced by a swell of alarm and disbelief. The river wasn’t lava, the setting wasn’t volcanic, and nature had nothing to do with the creation of this particular landscape.
One of the most powerful things art can do is challenge us to examine the assumptions we hold about the world. Burtynsky’s photographic forays into industrial shadows pushed me to confront my own notions on beauty and ugliness, the value judgments I held on the natural and the artificial, as well as modern civilization’s role (and by extension, my own) in the construction of these landscapes.
Shipbreaking series, plate 58. With permission from www.EdwardBurtynsky.com
Published in 2003, the book version of Manufactured Landscapes is the first major retrospective on work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. The oversized volume contains three essays and an interview with Burtynsky, along with six distinct series of his work broken down into specific landscapes: Railcuts, Mines and Tailings, Quarries, Urban Mines, Oil Fields and Refineries, and Shipbreaking.
Like other art-focused Ekostories, I think it would be more appropriate to let the photographs speak for themselves and let you, the reader, discover the stories they have to tell. I do have a few questions that may or may not be useful as guides:
- Do you see these landscapes as beautiful or ugly?
- Do these photographs convey any type of story or message?
- Which aspect of these landscapes impress you the most?
- Did these images make you aware of anything you were previously unaware of?
The Scale of Industrial Civilization
Quarry series, plate 19. With permission from www.EdwardBurtynsky.com
To me, many of Burtynsky’s photographs initially seem picturesque and unremarkable until my brain registers the sheer scale of the landscapes, after which they take in a whole different dimension. Vast granite quarries reduce mammoth excavators to tinker toys. (p.84) Entire oil fields of pump jacks extend beyond the Californian horizon. (p.121) Tire piles tower like canyon walls (p.113), and ruined hulks of tanker ships sit silent on Bangladesh beaches, monolithic monuments to the industrial age. (p.141)
Oil Fields and Refineries series, plate 47. With permission from www.EdwardBurtynsky.com
It is often very difficult to convey the magnitude at which a global civilization of over seven billion people operates. The world, especially for North Americans, can appear so expansive that it’s hard to imagine humans can actually have significantly impact it.
Yet we do. In an interview, Burtynsky speaks of the awe he felt seeing skyscrapers of sixty and eighty stories for the first time along with his subsequent realization that “there has to be something equally monumental in the landscape where we have taken all this material from.” (p. 49) In Manufactured Landscapes, he captures the scope of these consumed or discarded places – the mines, the quarries, the oil fields, and recycling centers – to stunning effect, reminding me of industrial civilization’s ability to shape and transform landscapes (and by extension the oceans and the atmosphere) on a global scale.
Urban Mine series, Plate 42. With permission from www.EdwardBurtynsky.com
Between Aesthetics and Conscience
When I realized that the orange river and charred lands were man-made creations, byproducts from nickel mining and smelting in my country, an internal tension between aesthetics and ethics arose within me. While the beauty I saw in the landscape prior to my realization had not lessened, the visceral wrongness of its existence overwhelmed everything; it became extremely difficult to appreciate the art solely for its own sake.
As regular readers of Ekostories may have to come to know, I generally dislike associating natural landscapes as “good” and man-made landscapes as “bad”. Yet in this instance, I could only see the image as an indictment of the wanton carelessness of industrial exploitation. As Kenneth Baker wrote in his exploration of Burtynsky’s work, “enjoyment depends on our not thinking too hard about a bright orange river as a chemical and ecological reality: we know intuitively that in nature a river of this colour must spell trouble.” (p.40) Despite it being probably the most beautiful photograph in the collection, I simply could not bring myself to think about and enjoy it.
How Things Are
“They are not overtly political. They do not assign any blame, neither on society as a whole, nor on the companies that operate mines or refineries. The images force us simply to contemplate our imprint on the land.”
– Lori Pauli on Burtynsky’s photographs, p.22
What I find particularly intriguing and effective about Burtynsky’s work is its inherent lack of expressed outrage. His photographs are provocative on many levels (many of which I’m not familiar with), but they never come across as didactic or heavy-handed. In an analysis of his work, Lori Pauli suggests that Burtynsky adopts a viewpoint that is more “anthropological rather than critical.” (p. 10)
Burtynsky’s cool camera eye, as detached as it may seem, is still a biased reflection of reality. I’m not sure if I agree with George Orwell’s assertion that “all art is propaganda”, but by choosing what to focus on and what to exclude, Burtynsky nevertheless creates intentional and unintentional messages about humanity’s relationship with our environment. With the orange river, even he concedes that it “carries with it a lot of ideas and difficult ones at that, including where we are going with all of this technology.” (p. 22)
Shipbreaking series, plate 59. With permission from www.EdwardBurtynsky.com
Despite my negative reaction of the orange river, I struggle not to succumb to the kneejerk response of associating industrialization with ugliness. The appeal of Burtynsky’s images is that they reveal unexpected (even if it is at times shocking and perverse) beauty in these intentional landscapes, presenting them as they are as the signs of our times. By doing his best not to preach or moralize through his art, Burtynsky seems to speak on a more subtle and accessible level: “Like it or not, this is how things are.” The landscapes are allowed to exist without judgment or justification. How we interpret and react to their existence is left to us.
If there is a universal message in the photographs of Manufactured Landscapes, I believe it is perhaps that every great human achievement has a reciprocal shadow on this planet, even if it is hidden away and unseen. Burtynsky’s work highlights the inextricable linkages between human achievements and the resources consumed that make them possible. To be made aware of this simple but often forgotten fact can hopefully help us, as Burtynsky notes, “learn to be more conscientious custodians of the resources that we have been given.” (p.50)
I will end with a trailer for his newest documentary, Watermark, in collaboration with filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal. (I’m going to be going to a screening of it tonight.)
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.
- Past Meets Present: Shan Shui Environmental Art
- Picture Poems: Window and Belonging
- Narrative in Art: The Changing Countryside
Burtynsky, Edward (2003). Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky. Caplan, U., Pollock, D., & Martel, D. (Ed.) Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada.
Feature Image – Mines and Tailings series, Plate 14. With permission from www.EdwardBurtynsky.com