Life at 500 feet

Photograph by Joseph Hammond

“Sir, chin up please.” Edward Burtynsky turns his shoulders and raises his silver-haired chin into the pale blue light of the projector. Not far away a crew is noisily packing chords and audio equipment back into their heavy metallic cases. “Look away. Now back at me.” Joseph Hammond directs the world-renowned photographer with composure, despite a hint of nervousness.

The lighting inside the Concert Hall of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel is a somber yellow, dark and not ideal for a profile photograph, and Burtynsky is due to catch an early flight the next morning, so the shoot has to be quick. Hammond improvises by using light from the projector, arching over the blue-clothed circular tables from the back of the hall, even as the tech crew shuffle around, waiting to pack it in. Hammond positions Burtynsky in front of the large, hanging screen by the stage where, earlier in the night, he had delivered somewhat of a retrospective on his life and works to an attentive crowd of Ryerson alumni and administrators at the 2012 Ryerson Alumni Dinner.

His talk, and his interest in photography both began at the same place: his childhood.

Burtynky’s passion for photography was innate, but it was his father who cultivated the son’s ardour for it. Around 1966, his father bought a darkroom, cameras, and instruction manuals from a widow whose late husband practiced amateur photography, and together, father and son learned how to make black and white prints. Burtynsky was just eleven when those long darkroom sessions began.

Nearly fifty years on, Burtynsky is probably off in some unspoken nook of the world, possibly working on an as yet unrevealed new project, having recently put the final touches on his latest photographic series: water.

That he is able to continue jetting around the globe, photographing the imprint of human development on the environment – and making a living from it – is a testament to the international engagement of his work, and the clamour for the green movement to get behind an artist strong in his convictions that humanity must find new ways to answer the resource question.

Burtynksy’s landscape photography has featured in more than 50 galleries and museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Guggenheim.

His work is now studied by students in Ryerson photography classes with the same relish with which he once studied the works of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and other photographers from whom he took his early cues as a student of Ryerson’s graduating class of 1982.

It is the type of full-circle moment one might dream about, and Burtynsky did dream of it, making goals of which he has surpassed many. “The path may have meandered, but I am where I set out to be when I first started,” he explains.

Having grown around photography thanks in no small part to his father, Burtynsky was ready to craft a style of his own, and found what he was looking for in 1975, when he visited a gallery showing in Rochester, New York, by a collective of landscape photographers called the New Topographics. The exhibition was called Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape and it altered Burtynsky’s perception of what a landscape photograph could represent.

“I saw guys like Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams, and Joe Deal and a handful of other guys who came forward with a body of work that challenged the human usage of land as a subject,” Burtynsky recalls.

Those artists were taking on the landscape, but not as a kind of meditative aesthetic experience as Ansel Adams had done, rather they showed landscape as a critique of human imprint on the planet.

“That was really important for me, to see that work and say landscape doesn’t have to just be this aesthetic journey, it can also have a criticality to it.”

Such a revelation had evoked a new sense of photography in Burtynsky, and he now describes the act in terms of “the contemplated moment,” an augmented twist on “the decisive moment” of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Burtynsky believes the contemplated moment is something best captured with the careful four by five inch film he almost exclusively uses, allowing viewers to delve deep into the threads of each image to see the detail within, then step back to see the whole picture.

Burtynsky studied those techniques while at Ryerson, where he credits the incredible photography instructors at the then Polytechnic Institute with opening his mind onto a new way of seeing the world, and giving him a subject to shoot for the rest of his life.

“I had the great fortune to have a phenomenal instructor in my first year, and mentor instructors are one of the most important things an artist can have. One of his assignments that hit me perfectly was to go out and photograph evidence of man.”
So Burtynsky went back to his hometown, and back to the Welland Canal, where he photographed remnants of the old canal as it had passed through St. Catharines.

“This assignment allowed me to be an observer of a different kind,” says Burtynksy. “He kind of gave me the license to be an alien within my own culture.”

The revelations and lessons learned from that assignment and throughout his education reinforced his epiphany in Rochester, and Burtynsky decided to channel all of his efforts into this newfound niche and his career, along with his passion for the work he does, has yet to falter, having taken off with the emergence of a more environmentally conscious society.

“I spent years trying to make really beautiful, amazing, complex, pristine landscapes. Then I started looking at the mines, and it occurred to me that I was being more true to my time at that point. I could see this as a life’s work, I didn’t have to shift to another theme, man’s relationship to nature was big enough.”

The sweeping, aesthetic composition of each Burtynsky photograph is always in tension with the confrontation of our marring of the land, and this draws the viewer to successively appreciate the grand scale of these images, then come in closer, and search out the minute details before pulling away, re-focusing on the problem that this photograph represents.

Often he positions himself in an area with a high-vantage point, using elevated platforms, natural topography, and helicopters to get shots others cannot envision until having seen the finished product.

On one trip to capture the impact of mining, Burtysnky spent eight days in a helicopter, circling above the disfigured, naked peaks of mined-out mountains in Spain.

It is not lost on Burtynsky that the action of his travelling the world to take these photos is also reliant on the industry which he is exposing, but he hopes that his photography can help change the discussion on environmental sustainability, making it a main talking point in the political forum.

“It is we who are now dwarfed by our own technology. These ages; the stone age and bronze age are still alive and well, and are functioning on a humongous scale, and we need to be aware of that,” he says.

Nowhere was this more evident for Burtynsky than on his trip to photograph the hulking, ghostly hulls of massive tankers being excruciatingly picked apart by hand for scrap metal in Bangladesh. There, nearly 25,000 labourers climb like ants over rusting swaths of dozens of ships perpetually stuck in the muddy ground. Safety conditions were non-existent, to the point where workers were using torches to cut the steel without any eye protection, rudimentary harnesses or none at all.

“I’m a photographer, and it bothered me to see what they were doing, because I work with my eyes,” Burtynsky says. So he purchased 2000 pairs of goggles for the torch-cutters, each with a note telling them to protect their eyes so that they can see their families when they’re older.

Those commentaries offered by his work, those contemplative moments are what The Boston Globe meant when they wrote of Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes as “a mesmerizing work of visual oncology, a witness to a cancer that is visible only at a distance, but entwined with the DNA of everything we buy and everywhere we shop.”

“Well I do think what I’m photographing is a little overwhelming at times,” Burtynsky decides.

In this way, Burtysnky is at the forefront of photographers as activists, and he is just as quick to extol the virtues of his art, as he is to berate governments for their inability to bring up the major environmental issues.

Burtynsky is not so pure a photographer that he will not refrain from using Photoshop as a tool to “stitch a few images together to make something that wasn’t possible before,” because his photos are both art and reality. This is in reference to his newest exhibits, featured in Chicago, just a few days before the Alumni Dinner. In the exhibit Burtynsky explores how humanity makes use of water, taking photos of enormous circular crop fields and using his stitching technique to create deliberate sets of these farms.

In this way, he is ever the artist – essentially helping us grasp the magnitude of the images by cloaking them in aesthetics, so that we are not immediately repulsed by the subject of the images, and can study the problem more in keeping with the contemplative moment.

“I think ultimately you want to build a narrative. I always had these compartments for my pictures, and every time I framed my camera I knew which compartment I was assigning the image to. I never work randomly.”

Randomness is best left to the universe, and Burtynsky holds issue with the way that humans, through technology, are rapidly degrading the earth with calculated attacks on nature. He brings it up with each image he displays back at the Alumni Dinner.

There are just a few stragglers left seated around a table, too engrossed in conversation to leave even as the staff are beginning to clear away dishes, and cutlery. Their laughter fills the void left in the wake of the mass exodus of alumni, and clashes against the pounding music from the speakers by the stage, all the while, Hammond takes his photographs.

“One final shot.” The student is directing the teacher. Burtynsky has come full circle.