Growing up in an industrial town in southern Ontario, where his father worked at a local General Motors plant, photographer Edward Burtynsky witnessed a side of manufacturing and consumer culture that many don’t experience.
His appreciation and understanding of industrial scenery, cultivated at a young age, has led to a career of award-winning large-scale landscape photography. In addition to numerous art and environmentalism accolades, he is the 2015 recipient of the David Brower Center’s Art/Act Award, where a solo exhibition of his work is currently on view.
The small but substantive exhibition chronicles several subjects Burtynsky has explored throughout his career, including quarries, shipbreaking, the petroleum industry, mining and water. Many of these works appear as rather blunt political critiques. One image, for example, documents an expanse of oil derricks on the edge of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan. The barren land, the industrial stalagmites and the streams that meander through the site conspire to create an image that is almost apocalyptic.
Considered alongside Burtynsky’s images of Los Angeles’ sprawling and tentacular highway system, or toxic oil tanker shipbreaking sites, it is easy to see this photograph as a charge against modernity. But these associations might actually speak more to what I bring as a viewer than the artist’s intentions or an inherent political message. Burtynsky likenshis work to a Rorschach test, noting that a miner, an environmentalist, an art historian and a casual viewer might all see something different in a given image.
He also said that when he began this body of work over 30 years ago politics and social change weren’t motivating factors. He was more interested in trying to document a moment in history characterized by rapid population growth and resource extraction. Over time, however, his awareness of the consequences of this epoch gave the works political meaning.
Though his photographs do not transcend politics, their openness and nuance may be more powerful than works meant to shock viewers into action. Much of Burtynsky’s work focuses on China, including manufacturing and the construction of the mammoth Three Gorges Dam.