I’ve been a fan of Edward Burtynsky’s epic landscape photography for some time and have seen a couple of major exhibitions of his work, the latest at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg, astutely paired with an exhibition of Ansel Adams’ landscapes. Burtynsky is one of the most accomplished and important photographers of our era and the New Yorker has a profile of him that goes into depth on his career and how he works.
Like Watkins, Burtynsky has built a reputation on ambitious projects that double as tests of stamina. “Oil,” a six-pound book published in 2009, contains a decade’s worth of work, exploring the effect of crude upon the earth. He started his most recent project, “Water,” in 2008, and it took five years, and travel to ten countries, to finish. Burtynsky shot mesmerizing vistas of mountain reservoirs, desiccated lakes, agriculture, and suburban sprawl. He also joined with the filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal to co-direct “Watermark,” a documentary that combines his stills from the series with cinematography. “I see myself as a filmmaker in training,” he told me. The storytelling in “Watermark” is low in exposition and high in visual splendor. In one shot, the frame is filled with the body of a worker; as the camera pulls back, we see that he is facing Xiluodu Dam, on the Yangtze River—one of the world’s tallest dams. Over the course of a minute, the shot subverts our sense of scale. As Burtynsky put it, “That thing just keeps getting bigger, and the guy is just diminishing and diminishing.” The scene ends in a terrifying panorama of engineering that reduces the sole visible person to insignificance.
Such imagery can be potent, but it can also attract criticism. Paul Roth, who curated “Oil” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, told me, “There have always been people suspicious of Ed: ‘Is everything going on in the world really fodder for your aesthetic?’ ” Where Burtynsky’s epic industrial landscapes are least successful, they convey beauty and immensity without being intellectually engaging. “They run the risk of becoming mere pretty pictures,” Artforum noted in 2002, citing a series he once made of shipping containers stacked, like colorful blocks, in a shipyard. Over the years, greater skepticism has been voiced about what is, arguably, a less problematic issue: Burtynsky’s inclination to depict toxic landscapes in visually arresting terms. A critic responding to “Oil” wondered whether the fusing of beauty with monumentalism, of extreme photographic detachment with extreme ecological damage, could trigger only apathy as a response. Paul Roth had a different view: “Maybe these people are a bit immune to the sublime—being terribly anxious while also being attracted to the beauty of an image.”
In fact, throughout his career, Burtynsky has used his camera to create painterly abstractions as often as he has to create sublime imagery. While working on “Water,” he wrestled with the sprawling and complex nature of the subject, and found himself seeking higher and higher vantage points. In India, he used a hydraulic pole to shoot an overhead view of a religious festival on the Ganges that attracts tens of millions of people. Eventually, he left the ground entirely, using helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes. As he drifted upward, his images became flatter, stranger: visual puzzles.