Catastrophe can be made beautiful. That is one of the searing ironies of photographer-artist Edward Burtynsky’s large scale images of scarred earthly landscapes. Burtynsky was in St John’s last weekend to open his latest exhibition of photographs. Ominously called Burtynsky Oil, the show is a poignant study of the effects on the land of warming our houses or using our computers, of building cities and all the of the infrastructure required to keep ourselves comfortable according to the standards to which we have become accustomed.
Well over 350 people attended the opening and I would hazard a guess that many more have since filed into the provincial art gallery to gawk at Burtynsky’s impressive work. Burtynsky is a Canadian who grew up in the then moderately rural community of St Catherine’s, Ontario, where he used to ride his bicycle and listen to the wind. His story, as told to a packed audience a few days after the opening of the exhibition, follows a familiar line of a precocious child who followed his instincts and developed a full career pursuing his interests. An early inclination to photograph the landscapes in which he was growing up led Burtynsky to become one of the most famous and influential landscape photographers of our age. Not that he planned it that way, but it just shows you what happens if you are both ambitious and creative.
Honestly, you cannot walk around the gallery in which his photographs hang without being deeply affected. Like everyone else, I have been both troubled and challenged by Burtynsky’s work, and what his god’s eye view of what is happening to the natural world is telling us. Burtynsky Oil is not just about the fact that oil and water don’t mix. His images are also about the enormous infrastructure the world needs and seeks to keep the oil flowing into our factories and houses, to keep our dishwashers and air conditioners humming, our computers buzzing, our cars speeding from one mall or theme park or office to another. Imagine, say, a framed shot of a parking lot on which thousands of freshly manufactured Volkswagens were lined up, ready for shipment to car dealers all over the world. Or consider a bird’s eye shot of an elaborate concrete jungle of interconnected roadways and highway circles, such as one would get by shooting Los Angeles from the clouds. The sheer scale of such an image, or the complex nexus of interconnected highways on which they will eventually travel, is itself a strong element of the appeal.
All of these images speak pointedly to the interconnectedness of man, nature, and oil.
As luck would have it, I happen to be working on a conference paper on both his photographs and the celebrated documentary that has done so much to circulate his message. Manufactured Landscapes by filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal takes the photographs beyond art galleries and into theatres where thousands of people can see at once the terrifying beauty and the sublime grandeur of the artist’s vision. So it is that having both Burtynsky and his show under one roof a few skips away from my office right now is, surely, a huge lucky break.
And so it is that my head is filled with his images these days, and all that they suggest and interrogate. Indeed, so fortuitous is the timing of Burtynsky Oil that our national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, placed a freshly developed photograph by Burtynsky on its front page earlier this week. Before coming to St John’s, Burtynsky had flown into the eye of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, shooting wide, symmetrical slicks of oil shaping into abstract patterns of sinister beauty on the surface of the water. He had shown us more of these awesome images in a slide show the day before, observing how difficult it was to catch the light and a clear focus so many hundreds of feet above the surging waters in a precariously perched helicopter. To get the kinds of images Burtynsky captures he has to go out on more than a few limbs.
The artist always shows us what we can’t see with our ordinary eye. He also shows us the connections between ourselves and the world in which we walk, or drive, so casually, so unthinkingly blithe to what, say, an oil spill many thousands of kilometers away in another country might have to do with us.
What struck me most about what Burtynsky told us during his artist’s talk is that an early mentor, a teacher at Ryerson University where he shaped his skills as a student of photography, sent the class on an assignment to shoot the effects of humanity on the landscape. Burtynsky knew immediately what to do. He headed straight for the Welland Canal where he used to ride his bike and play as a young boy, and he captured the concrete traces of the once heavily engaged canal that survived years of neglect or indifference. You can see the line of continuity between those early shots and the current work he is shaping together for his next subject—water. I like that line of continuity and what it tells us about what an education and the right teacher at the right moment ensures about its trajectory.
Among other more sobering thoughts Burtynsky’s work is inspiring in me these days is the hope that all the students who are pursuing degrees in biology, in environmental sciences, in geography and earth sciences and geology are being directed to the Burtynsky show. It should be a necessary part of the curriculum, whether undergraduate or graduate studies.
Ideally, work such as the kind Burtynsky produces ought to be a regular part of the curriculum of these and many other programs, whether the original work is hanging in one’s home town or not. Why not introduce an artist’s vision of the subject matter? It might just change someone’s life.
In this case, at least, a series of Burtynsky photographs is worth well more than a thousand words.