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Burtynsky Delivers Excellence With Sincerity and Humility
on June 7, 2003
In 2002, I first noticed Edward Burtynsky's gorgeous 40 x 50-inch color prints at the AIPAD conference in New York. To me, Burtynsky's work stood out from all the rest in that immense exposition, which annually showcases international photography galleries. I hoped his gifts would receive appropriate recognition. I didn't realize the degree to which his reputation as a master photographer was already well established by museums, collectors and critics. Since 1985, the Charles Cowles Gallery has represented his work in New York and the Mira Godard Gallery, one of Canada's most prestigious galleries, represents him in Toronto where he is based. So I am now delighted to report that Yale University Press' handsome catalogue from his recent retrospective exhibition in Ottawa is a remarkable accomplishment in every respect. The National Gallery of Canada organized the show and co-published the book. Although the 64 color plates do not deliver what I love most about seeing his work in person - that is simply not possible to achieve in small-scale, half-tone reproduction. The fact is that this book's design and color plates are wonderful. Every aspect of this book is highly accomplished and carefully, thoughtfully considered. Assistant Curator of Photographs, Lori Pauli, deserves special recognition, firstly as editor for selecting top professionals and for coordinating their efforts seamlesslessly. Secondly, Pauli also wrote a scholarly, insightful essay that sets the tone for engaging inquiry and discourse that is maintained by a distinguished panel of co-authors, each with a different approach, including Mark Haworth-Booth, Kenneth Baker and an interview of the artist by Michael Torosian. Their different perspectives should satisfy many questions that might arise for the reader who wants a broad social context without losing a sense of personal connection concerning aesthetics or individuating details about Burtynsky himself. He grew up in southern Ontario, Canada's most populous and richest province. Much of Ontario's wealth comes out of the ground itself and even more significantly, comes out of manufacturing industries, particularly auto plants. Mining and heavy industry are major themes in his site selection both close to home and far away. He traveled half way around the world for some locations. Burtynsky's beautiful art of otherwise terribly distressed places is absolutely authentic, warmly human and almost always immediately engaging. The reader learns that there is neither pretense nor opportunism in Burtynsky's choice of site selection and content. His deliberate ideological detachment also distances him from the controversy and rancor that often accompanies polemical discourse. However, his personal connection with his sites is another matter. Burtynsky reveals his distinctly individual sense of place in almost all of these man-altered landscapes. Considerable skill, intelligence, time, and expense were devoted to every composition. He certainly did not need to work this hard to simply provide compelling evidence of the consequences of large-scale exploitation of natural resources. The color reproductions are only a small fraction of the size of the original photographs but they still illustrate his career-long attraction to detail and immense, complex space. He understands color, light and large-scale abstract composition like few others in his medium. In fact, I believe that he could make anything appear beautiful anywhere -- and yet he doesn't. At the exclusion of everything else Burtynsky chooses places transformed by human desires - including his own - for commerce and comfort. His pictures of mine sites, quarries, oil rigs and rusting steel can truly astonish the viewer for their visceral impact. They convincingly demonstrate decades of demanding study, persistence, experiment and high critical standards but his conflicted passion for his sites is a separate, far more complicated matter that for the most part remains undisclosed. As a fellow large format photographer and colorist, I can attest that there is nothing he takes on to photograph that is simple or easy. Tripod-mounted view cameras are cumbersome tools to use, especially outdoors at the mercy of ever changing natural light conditions as well as the unavoidable and unexpected shifts in weather. It is slow, complex, painfully deliberate work in conditions that are always unpredictable and often physically uncomfortable. Burtynsky makes it look easy - it isn't. Ian Hunt, the designer, also hides his craft. His design reveals wise William of Occham's razor, keen balance and restraint. It is what only the very best design can demonstrate. This is certainly a book worthy of collectors but it is accessible for us all. It showcases an artist about whom we shall hear many more richly deserved accolades in the years ahead. There will definitely be more books about Edward Burtynsky, but Manufactured Landscapes will be difficult to surpass.