Edward Burtynsky, one of the world’s foremost contemporary photographers, has spent the past four decades chronicling the mark humans have left on the world around us. His beguiling, large-format images of mines and quarries, salt pans and refineries are visual metaphors of how nature has been remade by industry. It’s an obsession he traces back to his upbringing in St Catharines, Ontario, as the son of Ukrainian immigrants. There, Burtynsky briefly worked in car manufacturing before enrolling at Toronto’s then Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now called the Toronto Metropolitan University) in the mid-1970s to study applied arts, focusing on photography.
Burtynsky’s most recent project is In the Wake of Progress, a multimedia artwork that blends the most striking images and footage of the artist’s career. This month it shows across three nine-metre screens in Taylor Square as part of a special presentation by Sydney Festival. Burtynsky, who started out as a painter, has long been entranced by Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (1823-1824), an ode to nature as a source of terror and beauty that’s still a touchstone for his work today.
You’ve always been interested in The Sea of Ice, a painting by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. When did it first strike you?
When I left St Catharines and came to Toronto in 1976, I studied this program in photography that was really experimental. There was a history of art class during which the teacher would pick an era [to study]. She picked the Romantics and when a slide of Friedrich’s work came up, I remember bolting up and looking at it.
It refers to an early notion of the sublime. There is this wooden ship that can sail around the world. There is a miscalculation. They get caught in the sea ice and are trapped. The ice buckles from natural forces and the ship is trapped by nature – nature being an omnipresent force that we are dwarfed by. Nature is fearsome but it evokes awe and wonder. I love that juxtaposition.
Fast-forward 250 years and the theatre is us: a big quarry, a big factory, a big city. We are dwarfed by our own cities. We are these little teeny ants walking under really big piles of sand. What I went on to do was a complete inversion of that idea. I saw what the artists of the day thought of the sublime and I thought, I’d like to recast the sublime in a contemporary way. I used it as a stepping-off point.
It’s like Frankenstein’s monster, right? We create things and then they overtake us. Sublime landscapes showed us nature as theatre, but now these man-made landscapes are the theatres in which we exist.
I recently heard, on a podcast, that the dangers of the things we invent is like putting your hand into a big vase full of ping-pong balls. The ping-pong balls could be electricity or internal combustion engine. Now one of the balls we are pulling out of the vase is AI. We don’t know which one of them is like – uh-oh!
Your photographs invite us to see things in their entirety – I’m thinking of series such as Railcuts, which feature blasted rockfaces and Tailings, your images of bright orange rivers in Ontario. In The Sea of Ice, the viewer is encouraged to contemplate the beauty of the ice floes and the horror of the shipwreck at the same time.
If you are standing on the street, the way that the landscape breaks away is very conventional. Most people are between five and six feet tall and that is their perspective of the world. But as soon as the foreground appears at a distance, the scale becomes more apparent. That’s why elevation in my work has always played an important role. There is this sweet spot that I look for in whatever I’m photographing where the middle ground becomes key to the composition. When you see that in The Sea of Ice, you begin to understand the predicament they are in. You realise, we’ve really messed up. This is not good.
It’s amazing that Friedrich didn’t actually visit the Arctic but made the painting by sketching Dresden’s Elbe River, which would regularly freeze.
Friedrich painted [the scene] from his imagination and some sketches and drawings – he didn’t go firsthand to see it. In the early ’90s, I realised that I’d never seen a dimensional stone quarry. I imagine that there had to be these crazy worlds out there that had to be inversions, upside-down skyscrapers. Pre-Google Search, I used to look at quarry industry magazines and go to quarry conventions, when quarrymen were coming into town to talk about machines. You had to find your information in a very different way. A lot of my images begin like that: what does an oil refinery look like in a photograph? How can I photograph it so it’s more than just a bunch of pipes and concrete, so it captures scale, imagination, wonder? How do you take a picture of something and allow it to transcend banality?
Most of us have not been to the Arctic – but we wonder what it looks like. Our anxieties come into play when we look at The Sea of Ice too.
The Romantics were starting to see what the Industrial Revolution would bring. They deeply understood that nature was at risk even at that point. Friedrich was one of the first who would paint a portrait of his back on a mountain looking and gazing. He was one of the first painters to take a little spruce tree as his subject, so it becomes a place of worship.
If you look at the Chinese vase paintings, they were revering nature a thousand years before that. [But] for many generations of humans, nature was just a place to survive. It was the Friedrichs who really said you could make this lowly tree a subject of the painting. That was very uncommon.
The Sea of Ice is a study in both wonder and destruction. How do you deal with the ethical implications of making pictures that are beautiful?
There is the idea that photography represents evidence and witness, which maybe comes from journalism. It has an ethical role to be more objective. But that’s just a perception. I don’t do disaster aesthetics. I don’t chase the fire that razes through a city. Everything I do is business as usual. I am just applying the way I photograph a city to mines, quarries. [I’m saying] this is what it takes to make a city, to make our lives. It’s my way of saying we need to engage with our wastelands.
There’s a sense of our complicity too.
I’m completely complicit! I drive up in a gasoline car to photograph oil rigs. I suffer the same challenges and problems. We are having this conversation and using electricity – and it is a high likelihood in Australia that’s being generated by burning coal.
In the Wake of Progress is really about taking this to the public square so people with their shopping bags who are going to work are caught up in this 20-minute piece and are taken on a journey that reminds them where everything that they are engaged with comes from. The steel in their cars comes from an iron ore mine. Animals can’t graze on that land any more. These things remind us that we are all implicated.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 as "Edward Bur tynsky".
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