Friday, September 14, 2007

Edward Burtynsky: Quarries and Manufactured Landscapes



Edward Burtynsky is part artist photographer and part environmental activist a’ la Al Gore. Fascinated with the industrial landscape since the mid 1980’s, he makes medium and large format photographs of the ironic beauty that is often the after effect of environmental pollution. His first book was entitled Manufactured Landscapes published in 2003 by The National Gallery of Canada in association with Yale University Press. It is a stunning mini-retrospective of the photographer’s work from the early 1980’s until 2002. Beautiful, if not rather conservative in approach to design, the book is a fine introduction of this increasingly popular artist’s work.

In his photographs, he often chooses a vantage point that amplifies the “bigger picture” and often the results seem monumental and epic in proportion. He steps back so his frames often take in large vistas of land that have very obvious scars due to industry. One of his motivating factors for producing work within these landscapes is to bring awareness not only of the use of the land but to relate the consequences of our consumer habits to how it affects that landscape.

The computer on which you are reading these words was created by an industry that, when traced back to its beginnings, often relates to a polluting factor somewhere in the world. Then in the discarding of these products when they are obsolete, the polluting factor can be obvious in the way of large trash deposits, or less so, with lead and other contaminates from discarded computer boards leeching into the soil and polluting the groundwater of communities where they are discarded.


In Burtynsky’s last book, China (Steidl 2005), he examined the landscape of that global giant of manufacturing. While he was working on that project the documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal tagged along with Burtynsky and produced the fantastic documentary Manufactured Landscapes (Zeitgeist Films 2006). The documentary achieves a level of not only being entertaining but enlightening on a subject that could possibly be a sleep aid to insomniacs. Through the 87 minutes, Baichwal alternates between footage of Burtynsky working in various landscapes and still images that show his final images. The mix is both informative to the artistic process and the environmental message of the film. The first tracking shot, which must be seen by anyone wanting to put manufacturing of products into perspective, is both fascinating and appropriate punctuation for the film’s message.

In this film, one segment shows Burtynsky photographing in small rural communities in China that are the recipients of the world’s “e-waste.” E-waste is made up of computer and cell phone components that are discarded and shipped to China for recycling. These largely poor communities disassemble and salvage every bit of recyclable material possible from computer boards and monitors but the effect of such work has a devastating polluting effect on those communities.

The wonder of Edward Burtynsky for me is that these are photos exist at all. In the 1980’s, Burtynsky started a photo lab in Toronto Canada and his photographic talents were put aside while he was establishing his business. It was later, when a patron of Burtynsky’s agreed to partially fund one of his projects through print sales that he returned to concentrate on his personal work. The resulting photographs were of rock quarries.

Steidl has just published Edward Burtynsky: Quarries. This large format book features 80 plates from Burtynsky’s work in the quarries of Canada, the United States, Italy, India, Spain, Portugal and China.

Within the introductory essay, Michael Mitchell describes the extraction of the quarry material as being a form of “inverted architecture.” In the photos though, the beauty of these landscapes might make them comparable to the unearthing of ancient temples. The scale and beauty of these man-created fissures makes them seem to spring less from industry but instead out of a religious observance. They resemble an artistry in their creation/destruction a form that could be of the same order reserved for the appreciation of gods.

If there was one aspect of his work that I could be critical of it would be that I wish he would vary his relation to the landscape and give us images that are not always the master-shot. He is seldom less than epic in his descriptions; he seems to be in perpetual wide mode. And although every image is lush and seductive at every turn, the repetition of such vantage points makes the book’s ability to hold the readers attention with full concentration a bit strained. This is a book that rewards the return visit with a refreshed head.

Burtynsky is capable of handling complicated frames that are peopled with workers but only a couple examples appear within the illustrations for the introductory essay. One panoramic image of workers extracting stone from a quarry in India is a fine example of a different type of image that could be added to the sequence for variation. Complicated in its framing, it isn’t a panoramic image (6 by 12 medium format I guess) that is simply a “long picture.” This example makes me wish he included more in the edit.

The book’s production is top notch. From the opening image, the quality of craftsmanship and printing is a gift. The layout and design is clean and lets the images retain their individual power without distraction. The large trim size is perfect for the subject. One draw back of his first book Manufactured Landscapes, was that the design did not fully suit the scale of the images. Here in this volume, we are treated to a format where the grandeur of the images is taken into consideration with the design. Two panoramic style triptychs are treated to gatefolds towards the end of the book.

One aspect of this book’s production that is admirable is that, with all the talk of environmentalism and its application to our lives, this book was produced with a “zero footprint” carbon neutral status. Meaning that the carbon emissions associated with the production of the book were offset with ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certified projects and the paper used in production was certified by the Forest Steward Council (FSC).

I want to also mention another much smaller book of Burtynsky’s called Residual Landscapes published by the Lumiere Press in 2001. Lumiere Press, run by Michael Torosian, publishes small format handcrafted books where beyond the content, the care and craftsmanship is the draw. Michael Torosian is credited for doing all of the work as designer, typesetter, pressman and binder. Torosian and Lumiere Press have published 18 books between 1986 and 2004. Some of the artists featured in individual books are Dave Heath, Aaron Siskind, Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, Fredrick Sommer, Edward Weston and Michael Torosian among others.

The book has image plates and text pages of different paper stock. The text pages are on Hahnemule Biblio paper with printed type in Linotype Optima and Palatino fonts. The images are offset printing on a coated stock and the printing is very good. There are tonal differences in the printing when directly compared to the new Steidl book but all in all it has a very nice presence.

This book has 24 photographs which, similar to the Manufactured Landscapes book, span his career from the early 1980’s until 1999. Also included is an interview between Michael Torosian and Burtynsky.

This edition is limited to only 200 numbered copies, 19 of which are slipcased, signed and numbered and are accompanied by a giclee print. They are expensive when found ($300-500 for the edition without the print) but they are fine examples of classic bookmaking.

Buy Quarries online at Steidlville

Buy China online at Steidlville

Book Available Here (Manufactured Landscapes)

DVD Available Here (Manufactured Landscapes)

Zeitgeist Films Manufactured Landscapes

Lumiere Press

1 comment:

Kate Hutchinson said...

Thank you for your insightful comments on Burtynsky's work and his books. I am a big fan of his images and yet I still learned a lot from this blog post. I appreciate your taking the time to inform the rest of us.