Edward Burtynsky’s large scale (5 foot by 3 ½ foot) color photographs dominate the walls of the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco not only in size, but with color and abstraction. When one looks closely at the myriad of details and the vast area the images capture, the large format works - taken with an 8 x 10 view camera - almost look like paintings.
This award-winning Canadian photographer was born in St. Catherines, Ontario in 1955. He graduated from Ryerson Polytechnical University in Toronto. A recurring theme in his work is the juxtaposition of environmental issues² and our dependence on industry. As he so eloquently states:
“We are drawn by desire - a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction.”
Burtynsky’s recent work stems from a trip to China where he photographed industrial plants³, production lines, construction sites and coal mines. These images are shot from a great distance, revealing perspective from fine details in the foreground vanishing back almost to infinity. His use of chromogenic processing produces an almost impossible clarity of color.
The first image we come upon in the gallery immediately brings to mind the pyramids of Egypt. On closer inspection we realize we’re looking at piles of coal4. This almost monochromatic image looks as though it was taken at dawn or dusk. The ground plane in the foreground is a grid of concrete squares - the edges softened by years of coal dust - glow with a muted gold, giving us a feeling we’re looking at something ancient. The piles of dark grey coal are in shadow, almost looking flat against the overcast near-white sky into which tall metal factory chimneys faintly protrude.
Another more colorful work depicts the cavernous interior of a packing plant5. The huge silver beams on the ceiling softly reflect a sea of workers below from a series of fluorescent lights. All the workers are dressed in pink with blue aprons and white rubber boots. They stand at tables in rows going back in uncountable numbers until they disappear into an abstractness of color. In the foreground we can see the details of the work place; scales for weighing and fish piled in bright red plastic tubs on the counters, each person engaged in their work.
Burtynsky shows us how nature is transformed through industry6, whether it is inside or outside factories. As well as piles of coal or a mining operation becoming a part of our landscape, his images reveal how we have assaulted the countryside in pursuit of wealth.
At the same time, these images are real–yet unreal. We pass by
industrial areas often, but
just as often fail to notice the beauty in its abstraction7. Through color, composition, and light, he provides us with a closer look. The fact that these are such epic images makes us feel as if we could step into the scene – as if we are a part of that landscape.
He forces us
to see the reality behind the creation and destruction of
our world and the fact that we all engage in this process to our benefit as well as our detriment. Though he hopes to raise social and environmental awareness, Burtynsky does not take a stand one way or the other on environmental issues. In an interview in England he comments:
"The entire 20th century has been a revving up of this large consumptive engine. It's not a question of whether we are going to stop consuming. It's not going to happen …"
Like most of us, he doesn’t see an alternative to the plundering of our natural resources8, but encourages change through awareness.