Burtynsky is a legendary photographic artist but there’s a reason I haven’t featured any of his work here before.
It’s because hi-res scans of his images have been difficult to pin down on the net and his personal portfolio site provided little more than a thumbnail view of his photographs. But recently his site has been updated and you can now get a sense of what these images are about.
Burtynsky’s work is contradictory. He produces beautiful images of subject matter that is fundamentally disturbing. These images are about scale, they show what it takes to provide cities and technology to billions of consumers. His photos show the places where we get the raw material for a modern world- the places where the scale of our impact can really be seen.
There is a fascinating interview with Burtynsky on A Photo Editor where he talks about his workflow and the challenges of doing what he does. Many photojournalists have travelled to the same stretch of coast in Bangladesh where the biggest commercial ships are disassembled by hand but Burtynsky’s images are probably the most famous.
When I was in the field in Bangladesh, I felt like I was getting the vision that Charles Dickens had at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, or Blake’s reference to Satanic Mills, a dark workplace where everyone was in harm’s way. Environmentally, the place was a disaster, and a dangerous. It seemed like I was looking at what Industry might have been like 100 or 150 years ago, before safety regulations were in place, before human life was ever considered as something precious. Back then, if you got killed on a job too bad, you weren’t being careful enough, but that’s exactly how it was there in Bangladesh only ten years ago. If you didn’t survive the day, well, that was your own bad luck.
His other work has been related to recording the oilfields of the American mid-west, massive farming and irrigation projects, tailings and open cut mines in the Pilbara region of Australia and massive industrial districts in China and elsewhere.
Recording these images is crucial because these places are more or less out of sight and out of mind for most people. These places are hard to travel to and even harder to get access to but it’s not a conspiracy to prevent people from seeing them. Rather it seems like a collective act of self-censorship because it’s hard not to view these places as anything other than damage to our world and it’s impossible to live in a modern society and not be complicit in that damage. In an interview on A Photo Editor Burtynsky talks about sustainability;
What I’ve often said is that it follows, very much, a state of mind, collectively, that we’re all in. If I had to put a psychological term, on it, it’s that we’re all in a state of cognitive dissonance. In other words, we all know that the collective impacts the earth. You’d have to be pretty out of it to not have some sense that as a species, we’re having a profound effect on our planetary systems, water systems, air systems, the forest, life in the oceans. Everywhere you turn, humans are doing things on a large scale, and Nature is really getting the brunt of it, is being pushed back. So many of us know that this is happening. It’s getting harder to simply enjoy life, and go on, buy another car, fill your tank up with gas, take your favorite vacation down South in the Winter. Whatever it is you do.
In other interviews he acknowledges just how vital oil, gas and metal extraction has been to building the modern world without suggesting that progress and industry should be halted. I think there’s a reluctance on the part of many die-hard environmental activists to empathise with the difficulty that most people have reconciling what they know about the environment with the society in which they live. The cruel irony is that the education systems that make people aware of environmental degradation are one of the dividends of modern industrial society And no one, no matter how much recycling they do, is exempt from responsibility for these places, they represent the tradeoff of industrial economies.
Visit his official website or look through an up-to-date anthology of his work on the Artsy.net page for Edward Burtynsky
There’s also a good collection of his images here; http://www.hexnut.nl/?page_id=23