Edward Burtynsky’s “aha” moment came when he was lost in Pennsylvania, looking for a route back to the highway. He was a young fine-art nature photographer, and worried about his susceptibility to the “calendar” photo, when he stepped out of his car in a coal town called Frackville. Yes, Frackville. Since 1876.
“That was one of the most surreal landscapes I’d ever seen, totally transformed by man,” he said, when he accepted the inaugural TED Prize in 2005. He decided the theme was large enough to be his life’s work.
Of course, Burtynsky—whose startling large-scale photos of massive hydroelectric projects and other human interventions in our world of water will be all over Vancouver in the coming weeks as part of the Capture Photography Festival—had been preparing for his life’s work long before that. He grew up in St. Catharines, a General Motors town. His dad worked “the merry-go-round”, assembling front ends at the auto plant. And when he was 17, the younger Burtynsky did too.
His father also introduced him to the Canadian wilderness. “My buddy and I, the first cheque we got, he bought a car and I bought a canoe,” Burtynsky told the Georgia Straight over the phone from Toronto. “We went to Algonquin Park.” Burtynsky got yet another formative perspective on the hinterland working at Ontario’s Campbell Red Lake gold mine.
Now he’s 58, and he says these experiences have all become essential reference points for his images, which reveal the enormous scale of man’s interventions in nature. When he photographs sprawling Chinese factories, there is empathy for the people they reveal. “I understood what it meant to be on that side of the line, working,” he says.
That’s why there is beauty, humanity, and ambiguity in a Burtynsky image of a shoe factory with 90,000 employees, or the towering Three Gorges Dam, or a landscape made over by tar-sands extraction. He wants to show us not his judgment but a complex world as it is, in places that are outside our common experience. “You could read it as an indictment, or you could read it as a celebration of man’s ingenuity,” he says. Or both.
While Burtynsky is sometimes criticized for his artwork’s lack of polemic, he makes no apologies. Nor does he mind that Enbridge sponsored his 2010 show Burtynsky: Oil at the Art Gallery of Alberta. “You’re not going to get anywhere without a dialogue,” he says, arguing that finger-pointing won’t change the minds of powerful interests, and that Albertans don’t much like being told what to do. He prefers to show all comers the scale of our activity in a way that makes them see it differently and allows them to answer the questions that arise for themselves.
That said, there’s little doubt about Burtynsky’s own conclusions. He says the tar sands could produce seven million barrels of oil a day, which has the potential all by itself to exceed Canada’s Kyoto Protocol commitment to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. “It would pretty much tear up all of Alberta,” he adds. Burtynsky argues the Keystone pipeline to American oil refineries will create the momentum for that. “Once that’s in place, you can’t stop it.”
Yet Burtynsky has also maintained that environmentalists fail when they use the stick too much. He wishes advocates would distinguish between the people in industry and the economic imperatives that drive their companies, and to accept that those who work in industry might also care about sustainability, because those people are essential to creating it.
Right now, Burtynsky’s focus is water. He spent five years exploring the scale on which we use and abuse it—in the oil sands, with fracking, for hydroelectric power, and in agriculture. He wants us to know how precious and vulnerable it can be. Burtynsky has been working his way through the Earth’s elements in a fairly deliberate way. He argues that just as there were bronze and iron ages, we are now in the age of silicon and of oil, but that too many people don’t see this clearly enough because we’re in the midst of it.
That’s why he works creatively to ensure his images are in the public realm. Five images of water will appear on Vancouver billboards as part of the Capture festival (including one at East Broadway and Quebec Street and West 4th Avenue at Cypress Street). Burtynsky will also speak about his work and sign his fifth book, Burtynsky Water, at Langara on Tuesday (October 8) at 6 p.m. As well, he’ll appear at the premier of Watermark, his follow-up collaboration with director Jennifer Baichwal to their acclaimed 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes, at the Centre for Performing Arts next Thursday (October 10) as part of a copresentation by Capture and the Vancouver International Film Festival. (The film gets its wide release in theatres the next day.)
The billboard project grew out of a similar collaboration with Pattison Outdoor Advertising for the Contact Photography Festival in Toronto. (Pattison is donating the space, and Burtynsky’s own fee for showing the images is a rather modest $500.) As well, a variation of his book Burtynsky Oil is available as an app for $9.99—with high-resolution images and an audio commentary, and without much of an environmental footprint.
Burtynsky, who has two daughters, also believes that to create momentum for change we must focus on youth. He spent part of his $100,000 TED Prize, which allows the winner to fulfill a wish, on a competition to engage youth in environmental innovation. The rest went to help launch the website Worldchanging.com and to explore the ways in which his images could be used in an IMAX film. In the end, the IMAX film didn’t happen, but Manufacturing Landscapes did.
Burtynsky argues, however, that even the films are no substitute for seeing his images (which can sell for $40,000 each) in an art gallery, where their scale can be fully appreciated. “Everything beyond the gallery walls is a surrogate experience. But so few people get to that spot.” He’s had two solo shows at public galleries in Vancouver—at Presentation House in 2007 and at the Surrey Art Gallery in 2009. The Vancouver Art Gallery will take its turn in March 2014, with an exhibition that is just now taking shape.
Perhaps we’ll see a fair amount of our province in those images. B.C. homesteads and railway cuts are prominent in his early work, and an aerial Cineflex shot of the Stikine River concludes Watermark.
Burtynsky wishes we better understood the stakes in the region, where there is a huge push for industrial development, and a huge prospective coal mine threatens the headwaters of the Stikine, Nass, and Skeena rivers. “It’s one of the last fantastically pure landscapes in the country. It’s one of the most breathtaking landscapes I’ve ever seen.”