Feature: Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky

Old Factories #1, Fushun Aluminum Smelter, Fushun City, Liaoning Province, 2005.
Print on Kodak Ultra Endura Paper 5/10. Gift of the artist.
Makrana Quarries #8, Rajasthan, India, 2000.
Print on Kodak Ultra Endura Paper 1/5. Gift of the artist. 

In his internationally celebrated work, Edward Burtynsky examines our ongoing, collective manipulation of the natural world. His photographs look at spaces objectively, allowing us to face the expansive industrial processes carried out to meet the needs of our everyday lives. The landscapes Burtynsky photographs range in subject, from oil fields, recycling plants, urban housing projects to rural farmlands. But they are all held together by a common interest in the unedited present moment – our complicated world as it stands now.

In much of Burtynsky’s work, the viewer is faced with an unsettling contradiction. The photographs offer an unquestionable sense of formal beauty, but at the same time mark the harsh realities of our destructive practices onto the natural world. In this way, his work embodies a strong sense of the sublime, juxtaposing a certain compositional grace with an aura of disaster and destruction. Burtynsky’s landscapes, then, could be seen in comparison to the work of J.M.W. Turner, as both seem to provide horror as a necessary ally of beauty. Turner’s painted landscapes are in most cases imagined or exaggerated and leave us with Romanticized versions of the truth. But Burtynsky’s photographs are, in every case, documents of reality and with this stand linked to contemporary political discussion on socio-environmental issues.

Burtynsky’s work combines the spirit of both the documentary photography of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans and the groundbreaking landscape photography of T.H. O’Sullivan. Like these artists, his photographs bring into question the necessary roles of the photographer, artist and journalist. Burtynsky encourages this confusion though, for he does not see the roles of each as mutually exclusive. In fact, what makes his works so unique is that they operate in what he refers to as the tension between ethics and aesthetics.

Gallery Stratford was pleased to present “Edward Burtynsky: Selections from the Permanent Collection” in 2009, an exhibition that would bring together his work from a variety of subjects. The show marks a special relationship between the artist and Gallery Stratford, going back to 1991 upon one of his first solo exhibition’s entitled “Breaking Ground.” The gallery’s permanent collection currently houses thirty-nine works by Burtynsky, including some of the most notable from his Urban Mines and China series.