For over three decades, the Canadian photographer and filmmaker Edward Burtynsky has been traveling the planet making astonishing images of landscapes. He takes them with large-format cameras from godlike, elevated positions in remote places like Iceland or the Baja Peninsula or the Niger Delta.
But these are not nostalgic visions of untrammeled nature, destined for office calendars or iPhone backgrounds. No leafy asters bloom against backdrops of sawtoothed peaks; no toucans emerge from dark canopies to wag their bills.
In Burtynsky’s landscapes, we see the Earth we live on right now: a place humans have hacked up, carved up, blown up, spilled on and recycled. Bright orange tailings from a nickel mine wind through gray Ontario mud. A canyon of bare dirt twists between walls made by hundreds of thousands of discarded automobile tires. An oil spill spreads a gorgeous blue splotch across the sea.
Burtynsky shows us suburbia pressed against wetlands, supertanker graveyards in Bangladesh and parking lots so big they challenge comprehension. His best photographs are expressionistic, almost calligraphic, as though he’s displaying the hidden signatures our collective appetites have etched across the Earth. They are startling, frozen pictures, sometimes remote, sometimes intimate, sometimes both at the same time.
I find them repellent. I also find them beautiful.
Not so long ago, a reader waited in a queue to meet me after a public event. The gentleman shook my hand and told me that he enjoyed the beginning of a novel I’d written. I braced myself, then did my best to maintain eye contact while he explained that he detested the ending of this particular book (near which one of the protagonists dies).
‘What,’ he wanted to know, ‘was the purpose? What was the point?’
I’m afraid I mumbled something like, ‘I just tried to tell the story as carefully as I could.’ But later that night, tossing in my hotel bed, I had so many purposes! So many points! I wished I had told him that I wanted to show how hard war was on the young, how technology can be a force for oppression and for liberation, how all lives, even the smallest, are worth investigating.
I wished I had told him that I had wanted to make something both repellent and beautiful.