© Ed Burtynsky, Silver Lake Operations #1, Lake Lefroy, Western Australia, 2007
Burtysnky is famous for representing nature transformed through industry. He seeks out the largest industrial incursions around the world. A photographer of paradox, his images record the dilemma of modern existence: on the one hand we all drawn to having a nice life, and yet we are well aware the world is being damaged as a result. He calls his pictures ‘reflecting pools of our times’.
© Ed Burtynsky, Oil Spill #1, 2010
All of us consume petrol, metal and other natural resources everyday, but his images of recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries seem startlingly alien: the stuff of modern life has become so dislocated from where it came that mining projects or oil fields seem strange to us.
© Ed Burtynsky, Silver Lake Operations #12, Lake Lefroy, Western Australia, 2007
He up-ends our normal visual expectations by showing us industrial landscapes in new ways. But his images are by no means ugly: in Burtynsky’s pictures there is beauty in destruction. He captures how we have interrupted the earth’s surface, and his images attract and repel in equal measure. They show us that design and symmetry can be found in a man-made environment as well as in the natural world. He forces us to think about our place in the world, and the way our lives intersect with the earth’s natural resources.
© Ed Burtynsky, Railcuts #5, C.N. Track, Thompson River, British Columbia, 1985
And intersections are seen again and again in his images: He shows mountainsides striated by deep-cut lines, and his landscapes are criss-crossed by roads and the markings of heavy machinery. He presents vast spaces in great detail: with precision we see how blooms of green algae caused by an oil spill are intersected when a tanker passes. By examining these massive industrial incursions in such intimate detail it almost feels like we are intruding on something private. There is no doubt that his landscapes are a reminder about the need to live sustainably.
© Ed Burtynsky, Oil Spill, 2010
His fascination with how human desires collide with the natural world took root in his childhood. He was born in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. The untouched shorelines that he grew up by gave him a sense of the timeless geology of the world’s surface – and how we in comparison are so transient. Another early childhood memory of his was playing by the Welland Canal, watching the ships pass through the locks. His father set up a darkroom in his house when he was 11, and together they used to make and develop black and white images. His images are now housed in more than fifty museums around the globe.
© Ed Burtynsky, Row Irrigation
What’s interesting is that Burtynsky is only able to take his images by obtaining formal permissions from the corporations whose oil fields or mines he is photographing. In order to work effectively he himself must sit on the liminal boundary between complicit consumption and sustainability.
Beautiful and scarred, his images typify how we are all drawn to what is bad for us.