How Edward Burtynsky Shows Us Who We Are

Edward Burtynsky’s award-winning, large-scale photographs illuminate the environmental cost and alarming beauty of human intervention in natural landscapes. We spoke with him about his artistic influences, human responsibility for the planet, and the great grief behind it all.

Interview—Casey Beal
Photos—Edward Burtynsky

In a famous series of Romantic-era paintings by J.M.W. Turner, we watch from afar as a tall ship struggles to remain upright in a maelstrom of brushstrokes that we recognize to be one hell of a storm. Beauty and terror mingle before sheer natural force: an experience that we know as the sublime.

Edward Burtynsky’s celebrated landscape photographs offer us an updated version of this idea, one where humans and nature are both made small by the scale of our industry. His images depict vast vistas, usually drastically altered by various kinds of human machination.

Photographer Edward Burtynsky (left) and curator Marc Mayer (right). Photo: Nicolas Gouin

These are scenes that most of us don’t normally see, showing cumulated impact of our banal and ugly daily operation on the world around us.

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Though the work is clearly inflected with an environmental consciousness, Burtynsky refrains from forcing a particular agenda. Instead, he lets the even light of his images tell the story, trusting the viewer to complete the meaning. His photographs operate like a Rorschach test. What human story is behind this beautiful destruction? And what should we do about it?

Our conversation began, as so many do in these days of wildfire and climate anxiety, with check-ins about the air quality in our respective locations. I live near a protected old-growth forest on Vancouver Island known as Cathedral Grove, the site of one of his recent well-known shoots, inaccessible at time of writing because of road damage caused by a fire. He was fighting cynicism, having just watched a stageful of would-be Republican presidential candidates collectively deny human-caused climate change. 

“It is who we are, and what we are,” he says in the course of our chat. Edward’s lens won’t force our hand, but what we see through it can tell us a lot about our will and capacity to change.

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Thjorsá River #1, Iceland, 2012

His latest exhibition Le Paysage Abstrait runs from September 7 to October 15 at Arsenal Gallery in Montreal and traces the distinctive painterly thread running through Burtynsky’s career. The show also offers a special presentation of  “In The Wake of Progess,” an immersive multimedia project that premiered in Toronto’s Dundas Square in 2022.

You compose such beautiful images out of such unbeautiful elements. Does the aesthetic niceness of your images ever feel like a contradiction to you? And what is the role of beauty? 

So that is one of the core things that I believe sits at the center of the work: going to places that are never really considered as aesthetic experience or as something that should invoke wonder, [where you could] behold something of the sublime in nature.

What I was trying to do from the very beginning was to take a page out of the Romantic period, and then invert the notion of the sublime: it isn’t us that is now dwarfed by nature, it’s nature that is dwarfed by us.

It’s a way to do an update on the sublime, inverting it to reflect the fact that we are now the architects of our own existential threat.

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Of course, we’ve always had that. With the Second World War and the nuclear bomb, that existential threat was ever present: the idea that we can annihilate the planet in one day. We avoided that madness and immediate destruction, but now we’re more like the frog in the pot, incrementally turning up the temperature, with a bunch of us swimming around in the pot, saying it’s okay, it’s okay. But it’s not okay, you know?

My influences were very broad, from abstract expressionism and colour field painting to modernist photography, like Edward Weston and Paul Caponigro. They could take an everyday object, something as banal as a pepper or a head of lettuce, and convert it, through the act of seeing, into something extraordinary.

And so I started thinking, can I take a mine out of the ugliness and the banality of what a mine is — digging up rocks — and create something that becomes extraordinary?

Salt Pans #20, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016

Where you [pause and ask], why am I paying attention to this? Why am I standing in front of this? What is this thing? To me that was a way to subversively bring the viewer into the environmental consciousness and debate of our times.

And if we go into our films, think of Apocalypse Now. Every frame is dripping beauty and rich light and colour, telling this crazy story of a guy who’s gone mad in the jungle, and created his own world order. So it’s a technique used everywhere in art but somehow the still image, through reportage, has this undeserved position in truth and ethics.

I take something that is supposed to be a disaster, and I’m saying, “Excuse me, these things I’m photographing are not disasters, this is business as usual.” These things have their licenses, they’re given permission to do it by governments, and there are corporations that pay taxes and bring in employees that build their homes and have families and send their school kids to school.

That’s what we’re talking about; we’re not talking about disasters. Disasters are what happened in Maui. Disasters are what’s happening to the forests right now. Those are disasters

What I’m photographing is business as usual. I’m not saying that this is either good or bad. It is who we are and what we are.

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Salinas #2, Cádiz, Spain, 2013

There’s a matter-of-factness, a neutrality to the gaze of some of your photos, which I find almost anxious, reminiscent of good horror cinematography. You can enter from any angle. Why has that almost subjectless position been important to maintain?

What I was trying to achieve, ultimately, was, if I look at the spectrum of things by which people form their opinions, and make their decisions in life, these are shaped by, like, six polarities: politically right or left, religious or non religious, rich or poor.

And what I was always trying to do is to place my work at the very center of all of that, so that anyone from any one of those parameters can enter it, and see something and not to be told what they’re seeing, but be able to come to their own conclusions about what they’re looking at, in a way that it becomes a more of a philosophical position.

I know more about a person when they start telling me what they see in my work. I can say, “Oh, you’re an environmentalist.” Or, “You’re from industry.” Or “You’re a worker who’s come out of that world and has suffered the pain of that world.” But each one of those stories tells me a way in which somebody enters the work and is receiving that work. So the meaning is completed in the viewer’s mind. For me, it’s a kind of floating point that isn’t fixed. I never wanted to align the work.

You’ll see, my work is always titled by location. It says, “This is a real place in the world, at this particular time. This is the name of the mine, and this is the name of the town it was near.” So it’s always located and dated. All my titling has always been that and it’s never been aligned with an indictment, saying, “Oh, this, this is an example of ravaging a landscape for copper,” because that, in a way, takes that floating point and locks it into a kind of illustration: it becomes an illustration of the indictment, versus the thing in itself.

I think it’s not a useful conversation. If we’re going to electrify the world, we need copper, and we need a copper mine. We need aluminum if we want to fly in planes, and we need iron if we want to drive cars. It’s naive to think that we can stop the taking. I’ve never believed that.

To me, the only answer has always been, we need to take without destroying what we’re taking from while we’re taking it.

Sishen Iron Ore Mine #2, Overburden, Kathu, South Africa, 2018

So we have to take with greater care, and with future generations in mind, and we have to cease and desist our worst practices. And that’s the only choice we have as humans.

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When people ask me those questions, I just say it’s up to us. We are now the custodians of the planet. We were, ever since we were able to blow it up. We’re able to cut it down and burn it and divvy it up and turn it into housing or farms or whatever, and we’re in charge [of that]. So it’s really now a question of what do we do with that management position?

Across your decades of work, are there certain images you’ve created that still haunt you? Are there perhaps some whose meaning has shifted over the years?

I mean, you know, I’ve taken a lot of pictures, but I think that what sits as an unforgettable shoot is when I did the shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh. To look at the largest vessels that humans have ever made — oil tankers — and where they go to die. How they’re dismantled by the sheer force of manual labor, and a cutting torch is the most sophisticated tool that is used.

And there’s one picture in particular, with a worker in bare feet standing by the wall of an oil tanker that’s been pulled to shore, and he’s looking very dignified. People who’ve seen that picture have called him the Little Prince, because he has this kind of dignity, although he’s being paid 10 cents an hour, for 10 hours a day. Each day he makes one US dollar, doing hard back-breaking labour with a shovel, digging out mud from between the fins of the oil tanker as they drag it up to shore to clean it off, so the cutters can cut it up.

And there’s something very poignant about it. It was like stepping back in time, it was as if I got a chance to step back and see the world through Dickens’s eyes and [Blake’s] “satanic mills” at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, where life was cheap, and environmental concerns were nowhere to be found and the boss was the law and human dignity had no role in the workplace. It was just exploitation and brutal work. I didn’t think that could exist on the planet today, but there it was in front of me.

Then soon after that I went to China [to photograph industrial landscapes]. And that’s where a lot of my grief came from. I was having an anxious and existential moment of grief, and it was painful. And I think I came out the other side of it by way of the cliche of what happens in counseling grief: you turn that grief into meaning. You try to go forward with greater knowledge of our world and work towards sharing that meaning and understanding that meaning.

Casey Beal is a freelance writer and senior editor at BESIDE Media. Formerly he was the senior editor of the art criticism publication Momus. He lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

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