Manufactured Landscapes

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Do you ever think about where your cell phone will go once you throw it away? What about who made it, or who mined the materials to put it together? Edward Burtynsky’s photography boldly searches for the answers behind these questions — and they aren’t pretty.

On display from March 1 to May 26, Edward Burtynsky: A Terrible Beauty, a new exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, compiles almost 50 of Burtynsky’s breathtaking photographs, taken over a period of 30 years.

His early works are mostly focused on the natural landscapes of British Columbia, but his more recent photographs look for both the beauty and horror in the industrial footprint humans have had on the earth — from the claustrophobic factories of China to the vast oil sands of Alberta.

Burtynsky is a Ryerson University graduate, and he also moonlights as president and founder of Toronto Image Works, a small-scale digital media facility and photography lab. His works have been featured in the Guggenheim Museum and the National Museum of Canada. His exhibit at the art gallery was preceded by a donation of 34 of his pieces.

Though Burtynsky’s work is both diverse and international in scope, the exhibit focuses heavily on two of the photographer’s recent series: Oil, which comprises a multitude of photos taken between 1999 and 2008 of oil rigs and pipelines — including those in the Alberta oil sands — and Water, a series focused on irrigation systems and water preservation that recently inspired an acclaimed documentary film, Watermark, which Burtynsky co-directed.

Beyond the scope and symmetry of Burtynsky’s photographs, there’s a strong message of environmentalism and social justice.

His photographs are printed in large format, but they do little to suggest the huge scope of his images. Oil rigs, abandoned container ships, and overstuffed landfills dwarf the photographer’s human subjects, who end up looking like ants or tiny plastic figurines. Burtynsky also employs a depth of field which gives his images a crispness and precision that seem to magnify their surreality.

But while Burtynsky has the eye of an artist, he’s got the mind of a photojournalist — beyond the breathtaking scope and harmonious symmetry of his photographs, there’s a strong message of environmentalism and social justice. When interviewed by The Walrus, he explained, “I document landscapes that, whether you think of them as beautiful or monstrous, or as some strange combination of the two, are clearly not vistas of an inexhaustible, sustainable world.”

The contradiction between beauty and monstrosity is rarely clearer than when one is walking through this exhibit. While his images are meticulously framed and at times poetic, Burtynsky’s photographs simultaneously force us to confront the truth behind the minutiae of our daily lives: the water we drink, the food we eat, the gas we guzzle, the technology we take for granted.

“As humans, we still absorb 70 per cent of our knowledge through our eyes,” Burtynsky told the National Post in 2011, “I think the photograph, in this still and quiet way, penetrates our consciousness.” It’s certainly hard to walk away from A Terrible Beauty without feeling as though you’ve opened your eyes a little wider to the world around you.

Burtynsky’s photography is a beautiful mix of style and substance. The photographer offers a complex and provocative look at the impact of industry on the natural world — one that isn’t easily forgotten.

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