Edward Burtynsky started his talk by establishing his fondness of nature and his background in depicting untouched natural landscapes with a sense of large scale and long geological time. His experience in landscape photography was his reference point for his move away from “calendar picture” type art into something that he felt could be more meaningful. After accidentally winding up in Frackville, Pennsylvania and seeing “one of the most surreal landscapes” that he had ever seen, he decided to start photographing outdoor paces that had been totally transformed by human presence, as he felt that the topic was wide enough to pursue as his life’s work. He set out to take photos of landscapes altered by people, but did so in such a way as to show the landscapes in an aesthetically pleasing manner. He chose to depict landscapes in such a way because he felt that doing so could bring the issue of large scale environmental changes to attention without condemning viewers for their lifestyles. His work not only shows transformed landscapes from an interesting perspective but also seems to point out how, in an age when people are so dependent on large scale use of natural resources, there seems to be a disconnection between humans and the natural landscapes that they work to reshape. It seems that Edward Burtynsky aims to reconnect us to nature by promoting sustainability (without condemning comfort) through his thoughtful depictions of remodeled landscapes.
Burtynsky’s observations of transformed landscapes show through in his work. During his presentation he states that while his images seem to lament on the loss of natural environments, some also depict a sense of redemption through recycling and storing up reusable resources. An example of this includes the image of compacted bricks of recycling material, which seems to convey a feeling of remorse and perhaps an implication that the same people who may destroy a landscape also have the ability to put materials back into the system.
Edward Burtynsky goes on to discuss his travels through industrial Chinese cities, when his work seems to take on a somewhat different theme that shows the quick construction of several cities that were deconstructed by hand and moved out from a reservoir. During the presentation he stated that he felt that the relocation of cities presented an opportunity to build new sustainable buildings and infrastructure from the ground up, but as is evident from his images this was not the case. He showed images of dense dwellings and largely gray urban areas with no green spaces to speak of. One of the more telling images from this set was a photo of the tall apartment buildings which had individual AC units showing from each window – a practice which seemed to Burtynsky to be inefficient for such large buildings which might have been more efficiently temperature controlled had a central cooling systems been installed. The image contains a pattern of apartment windows and AC units rising high enough to extend beyond the borders of the frame, with the blue building in the center sporting an arrow pattern pointing upward, which perhaps adds to the strength of the suggestion that there is a boundless ascent of the same elements repeated over and over. Perhaps this photo could also be considered symbolic of the whole city, where buildings, machines, streets and other urban elements are repeated over and over throughout. With that image in mind, the next photo depicts a “forest of skyscrapers” receding into distant haze. Given the order of the images shown, the skyscraper photo highlights what must be an extremely large number of buildings, all containing at least one AC unit per single apartment and presumingly many other reoccurring instances of unsustainable practices.
Edward Burtynsky stated once or twice throughout the talk that he likes to convey a sense of scale in his work. One common element that most of the images in his presentation contain is that of repetitive patterns receding into the background – often with such depth that distant objects become almost completely hazed out by the atmosphere – giving all of his photos not only a large scale appearance, but also possibly a moody edge that might leave a viewer feeling somewhat disturbed or conflicted by the artistic quality of an image depicting topics that one might traditionally associate with wrongness. This is evident in images such as the tire photo below, but is especially evident in the images of Chinese factories, where large scale scenes recede unbelievably far into the distance. In several of the images shown, the factories appear to be almost unimaginably large. Several of the photos, such as the image of the mobile phone factory look strikingly like photos taken using mirrors to repeat images. The repetition of shapes, colors and people are all indicative of the large scale of the factory and imply that those patterns extend well beyond the frame. Although Burtynsky uses several diptychs during his presentation to push the idea of scale, his images already come as close as it gets to doing justice to the size of his subjects as well as the magnitude of his work.
Edward Burtynsky’s presentation contains imagery that not only shows off his skill in depicting the large scale transformation of the world by humans, but also imparts his environmental values and ideas on sustainability to viewers.