Basic rationale & purpose about selected object
The first time I saw Edward Burtynsky’s photography of Cankun Factory in Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, was in the appreciation of arts course last semester. I was totally shocked by the large-scale factory manufacturing scene, the ingenious ways of repetition, arrangement of figures and color impressed me a lot. The inner voice of my heart told me that the photograph hidden behind a great meaning or value that worth understanding. For me, it seems like as a function to reflect pools of our times, also to explore the goodness and beauty of mankind in the most indifferent place.
After that, I watched Edward Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscape, which is an extraordinary, insightful and touching documentary to show us the world factory in developing countries like China, Bangladesh. While I can relate to the implications made in Edward’s documentary or photographs, my experience and understanding of the 90-minute journey and other masterpieces are much more intense and complex. Because in a way, people describe his works as “stunning” or “beautiful,” which raises all kinds of questions about ethics and aesthetics without trying to easily answer them. So this essay is trying to analyze the photography works through the lens of Edward Burtynsky, and coupled with some underline meaning, technical photography knowledge from a logical, critical perspective.
Descriptions of visual features, concept/ idea
Above all is the brief introduction of Edward Burtynsky. Edward is an emblematic photographer, artist in Canada, who has reputation for taking large format industrial landscapes and transforming them into provocative forces of consciousness. He captivates images of the natural and built environments like stone, manufactured factory or substance to reflect the impressive reach of human enterprise and the extraordinary impact of rapid industrialization. As Edward stated that, “I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailing, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.”
As for Edward Burtynsky’s documentary and photography, I think he is leaving the evidences for the common experience between human beings and nature. As a kind of documentary photography, we see the large format manufactured industrial landscapes photography like fluvial rivers, dump hills and desolate places through the lens of him. In the Manufactured Landscape documentary, Edward travels to many developing countries, photographing the evidence and effects of that country’s massive industrial revolution. It shows a coal mine base in Tianjin, ship breaking factories in Bangladesh, marble mining plant in Italy…and what impressed me most was the construction and demolition process of the Three Gorges Dam in Sichuan, which has become the largest peacetime evacuation in history, uprooting more than one million people and flooded 13 cities, 140 towns and 1350 villages since the beginning of 1994.
Apart from the issues of human beings and nature, humanism is the other important point when we appreciate Edward Burtynsky’s works. For instance, we see both rich families and poor alleys in Shanghai, and innumerable workers, production lines in different factories in China. Those factories produce most of the world’s supply of clothes irons or sports shoes, many of them employ over 23,000 workers. The hard-working labors on the production lines like rows of ants, arranging an extraordinary orderly picture, which gives me a strong visual impact. As Edward said, “These new ‘manufacturing landscapes’ in the southern and eastern parts of China produce more and more of the world’s goods and have become the habitat for a diverse group of companies and millions of busy workers.”
So in terms of message transmitted, through the lens of the high-angle, aerial photograph, Edward Burtynsky tries to use the shocking scenes to remind people the secret relationship between man and material space, also make people realize that the world is suffering from the pain behind human desire by showing human beings’ impact on the earth. From his water, salt pans, oil and mines theme photography, Edward’ s photography are inclined to industrialization, we can say it’s a reflection on human beings’ behaviors, on the pollution of the industrial environment and the artificial scenery. In some ways, it also connects to the moral decay of human beings and the degeneration of culture since modernization has constructed industrial wonders and daily life, also materialized the landscapes and subverted nature. However, Edward also likes to explore the goodness and beauty of human beings in the seemingly indifferent places from his works of china factories, as we can find an indescribable subtle relationship between people and goods.
• Cultural References/ Theories
Photography technique ; Art, design theories
About the photographic technique, the most obvious features that contribute to his photography include the size of works and special angles. Edward Burtynsky’s trip through landscapes that have been altered by large-scale human activity, captured with Super 16 mm film, most of them are taken with “large format field camera on large 4×5-inches sheet film”. And Edward developed them into large-dimension prints with approximately 50×60 inches size, ranging from 18×22 inches to 60×80 inches. Apart from that, he often positions himself at high vantage points over the landscape, using helicopters or elevated platforms, in 2007 he began using a high-resolution digital camera, using remote control helicopters to position his camera at an optimal viewpoint.
In the large format photography, we can see Edward uses photographic techniques to compile the whole scenes and details together, which allowing us to see every small minutia and put ourselves into the actual photograph, experience it on our own. Those large-scale photography creates a dazzling visual platform that allows viewers to observe all the details between the close view and distant view, include all the things from near at hand to the end of the space. For example, when catching the scene of the great deterrent factory, Edward also captures the subtleties goods at the same time to get the “perfect moment”.
Apropos of the art and design showed from Edward Burtynsky’s photography, firstly we have to mention the great sense of repetition, which I think is one of the main themes across his whole body of works. The ingenious ways of repetition, arrangement of patterns, figures and color are refreshing, which gives me a real sense of perspective, quantity and strong aesthetics appeal. And Edward Burtynsky demonstrates the remarkable aesthetic experiences found in the combinations of lines, shapes, and colors of the devastated aftermaths of industry, manufacturing and resource extraction. When talking about using digital photography as an art form, Edward said: “In my work, I don’t compose, I keep the real world intact. But where digital works for me is that I can control the color, the density and the contrast”. He thinks everything has to be perfect and absolutely right before starting to shoot, include light and point of view.
Although most people have praised the documentary, there has been some negative receptions. Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune praised the documentary, but said “the people in the picture feel constrained and rather dutiful, no matter how passionate these people are about what they’re observing.” And some people may argue that the purposes of Edward Burtynsky’s documentary are to expose the industrial ugliness in developing countries, criticizing the human being’s behaviors of ignoring the nature. Facing these critical comments, I hold the opinion that compared with the natural landscape, the landscape created by human beings permeates the power of the sense of tragedy, which made the documentary and photographs of Edward Burtynsky full of vitality. In other words, I can see the strength and hope behind these irons, steel and people. Perhaps they are unattractive or ugly, but this is like a living as Edward’s photography is accessed to evoke social consciousness instead of public good.
More importantly, Edward’s works has made the unattractive images “reshape”, they became vivid and even gorgeous. According to Svala Ragnars, a documentary landscape photographer from Iceland, in terms of aesthetics and ideas, what influenced her most was the photography from Edward Burtynsky. For the reasons that his images often explore the ugly, boring industrial structures or ruined landscape, and turned them into various outstanding art with unbelievable art. The appreciation of formal beauty can be the first step toward the aesthetic experience of landscapes, in here, Edward successfully uses the formalist approach to the appreciation of everyday life to transform the unsightly, the squalid and the ugly into things of beauty.
In conclusion, Edward Burtynsky is known for his works on manmade landscapes that render issue of industrial transformation with disconcerting beauty. He’s a photographer who is standing on boundaries between art and documentary photography, and devotes himself to coming out critic of industrialization, proclamation of manifest environmental crises but also issues of humanitarianism.
Through the lens of Edward Burtynsky, the ingenious art-making process of photographing is perfectly shown. We see tension exists between the large scale of scenes and incredible details; we appreciate the gestalt concept of repetition in terms of framing and composition; in spite of these, we value the perfect control of color, contrast and lightning in his works.
At last, although there are some critics about the figures, purposes of Edward’s works, from my perspective it’s an open narrative, people may judge it in different ways depending on their positions. For me, I can feel the inner strength and hope behind those ‘terrible beauty’, they lead people to focus on environmental sustainability and emotional humanistic concern.
1. Baichwal, J. (2007). Edward Burtynsky video recording: Manufactured landscapes. Zeitgeist Films.
2. Mercury Films (n.d.). Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured landscapes. Retrieved May 10, 2008, from http://www.mercurylms.ca/burtynsky_intro_06.html
3. A Terrible Beauty, Edward Burtynsky and Scorned: Emily Carr. (2014). Vancouver Art gallery. Retrieved from https://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/pdfs/EdwardBurtynskySG2014.pdf
4. Jonathan Blaustein. (2011, November 30). Edward Burtynsky Interview. A Photo Editor. Retrieved from http://aphotoeditor.com/2011/11/30/edward-burtynsky-interview/
5. Burtynsky, Edward. (2001). Residual landscapes: Studies of industrial transfiguration. Toronto: Lumiere. de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
6. Ann, Donar. (2010). An Appreciation and Analysis of Edward Burtynsky – Manufactured Landscapes: A Film by Jennifer Baichwal. Canadian Review of Art Education
Additional information/ notes/ explanation
1. Edward Burtynsky, Projects, Photographs, China, Three Gorges Dam.
Three Gorges Dam- “Building mega dams in the 21st century has gathered much global criticism and is central to a growing debate. To make room for the Three Gorges Dam, approximately 1.13 million people must be relocated and their livelihoods challenged. It is the largest peacetime evacuation in history. Fertile agricultural lands and important cultural/historic sites will be found submerged under a vast reservoir.”
2. Cristina Sanchez (2010.9). Through the Lens of Edward Burtynsky. On Photography, gallery guide.
On the evolution of photography as an art form- For the last 20 years, in the West anyway, it has been the most exciting and the most talked about of art forms. Every museum has been engaged in showing and celebrating art photography. Digital offers even more control. In my work, I don’t compose, I keep the real world intact. But where digital works for me is that I can control the color, the density and the contrast. I used lm until recently. It teaches discipline, especially with large formats, forcing you to clearly establish your intentions. It changes how often, when and how you make a photograph. Light, point of view, everything has to be perfect before you start shooting, and I have to get it absolutely right on my negative. Those are real differences, with no right or wrong. I would still get the “perfect moment”, but instead of two frames I might have 10 and delete what I don’t need. As a printmaker, it is very exciting: I can do things today that I couldn’t dream of 10 years ago, and I often have “eureka moments”. In the proper hands it’s a fantastic tool and because it remains a young media, there is a lot of room for invention and individual innovation.