Edward Burtynsky: A Single, Finite Planet

“It is our collective impact that is putting the whole planet in jeopardy.”

Client: Forbes feat. Edward Burtynsky
Date: January 23, 2017
Services: Profile
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A stone’s throw from where Toronto’s King Street West intersects Spadina Avenue sits a lofty second-floor studio full of photographs. On this snowy December afternoon, the room’s lengthy central table presents three dozen shots taken across Eastern Europe for a Government of Canada-commissioned special project, while the next room over stows thousands more distinct captures, each with their own unique backstory just one inquiry away from being told. They are the life’s work of a man absorbed in capturing the outermost limits of human ambition, ephemeral flashes of brilliant insight elucidating both the breadth of our drive and the gravity of our myopia. Sitting behind the oblong desk in the studio’s sole private office, his back turned to the domineering bookshelf maintaining such literally-titled volumes as Ocean and Land, is photographer-filmmaker Edward Burtynsky.

Burtynsky is tall and profuse with short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair enjoying a mind of its own. He’s husky in a way that suggests a life of physical labor, yet at sixty-one years old, he looks a decade younger. He employs terms like “Anthropocene” (the title of his next film) and “terra firma” instinctively, yet is just as comfortable discussing Moore’s Law (“It’s quickly coming to an end”) or the truths of being a young person today (“If I were a millennial, I’d be pissed”). For the most part he’s dialectical and phlegmatic, yet when he laughs, it’s abrupt and voluminous, like a sneeze. Burtynsky describes his photographic forte as “residual landscapes” – places where humans have arrived, altered nature in a significant way and, in most cases, subsequently left. It’s in that third stage, post-use, that his interest is most highly piqued. He’ll find an oil field, a salt pan or a granite quarry and go to work.

Burtynsky captures the Colorado River Delta from above. Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Metivier Gallery, Toronto
Burtynsky captures the Colorado River Delta from above. Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Metivier Gallery, Toronto

When it comes to finding such locations, Burtynsky doesn’t just seek out any instance of the given phenomenon: he pursues the world’s largest-scale example without regard for location or difficulty of access. When I inquire about the background work necessary to shooting a particularly eye-catching image on his studio wall – a godlike view of a seemingly-endless array of abalone and sea cucumber farms in the East China Sea – the thought process he presents is remarkably straightforward: begin by contemplating the role of water and the myriad ways humans use water for his second award-winning documentary, Watermark; identify the fishing industry as a salient theme within that narrative; discern that farm fishing is a larger global protein delivery system than open-sea fishing, and thus a more intriguing study; pinpoint China as home to the largest fish farms on Earth; visit the precise location of the world’s largest collection of fish farms, which sit in Luoyuan Bay just off the coast of Fujian province. The resultant photo, captured in one eight-hundredth of a second, was years in the making.

The image casts a soft yet enduring glow on the age-old industry, though not all of Burtynsky’s work can be viewed through the same lens of beauty; on the contrary, some of his other photo series’ display harrowing views of landscapes equally transformed by human activity. A river made fluorescent orange by nickel tailings winds through an austere landscape in northern Ontario. Seven million used rubber tires heap into small massifs in central California. More than a million ruralites are displaced for the construction of a contentious dam along the Yangtze. “My work sits more in the world that we’ve designed, not in the world where an unhappy event has occurred,” Burtynsky explains, drawing a distinct line between his residual landscapes and those left behind by a force majeure. “These landscapes aren’t breaking news, or necessarily even illegal. These are intentional, purposeful landscapes, whether to extend our cities, or build a mine, or put a road in, or clear a forest. I’ve been photographing that which has been intended by us; it’s not an accident.” His frame of reference is as expansive as the images he exhibits.

Noting a particularly poignant photo series, Burtynsky tells me, “In most of my work, we’re the protagonist and nature’s the victim. But in this case, we’re the protagonist and the victim.” Humanity’s level of self-immolation, which ranges from subtly to blatantly apparent in many of his images, is chilling, though that doesn’t mean Burtynsky is pessimistic. In an editorial in his photobook Essential Elements, he says, “As artists, we can help visually, and intellectually, to make people understand that, at some point, we have to accept that it is our collective impact that is putting the whole planet in jeopardy.” He explains even more fully in his studio: “Using art as a conduit to bring these industrial worlds into our urban worlds is a role that an artist like myself can play.” Burtynsky cultivates daily patience specifically because he so deeply understands the urgency of the fracas we’ve engaged in. If he weren’t willing to help the landscapes tell their stories, perhaps no one would.

Edward Burtynsky
Edward Burtynsky. Photo: www.birgit-kleber.de

Yet to fully appreciate the latitude of his work is to recognize his equally acute attention to detail, and thus, a tenth look at a Burtynsky can be just as immersive as a first. One of his best-known images comes from a low-altitude flight over the Colorado River Delta in which the once lush, thriving water environment has been disfigured into a contemporary portrayal of decline and demise. It’s ironic in its display of impermanence and intransience in the same moment; the branchlike river fractals, infinitely malleable in their scale, laugh in the face of the water itself, gone forever. A slight fishing boat slowly decaying in the center of the resulting barren wasteland is the exclamation point, a stark reminder of what could have been.

As we part ways, Burtynsky and I stand near his studio door, his shot of the abalone farms clearly visible to me over his shoulders. Though I’d inspected it for several minutes just an hour prior, a small yet significant detail made itself clear to me only now: each of the individually-owned farms were fastened together, a makeshift insurance policy in case of typhoon. The realization hit me like a ton of bricks.

Even there, in the heart of one of the most cutthroat industries in the world, everyone had put their differences aside and opted to aid their competitors for the benefit of them all. That single notion, simple as it is, transformed my own grasp of Burtynsky’s worldview from pre- to post-comprehension, a cognitive residual landscape if there ever was one: “I no longer see my world as delineated by countries, with borders, or language, but as seven billion humans living off a single, finite planet.”

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