Long before the climate crisis was on the global agenda, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky traveled the world documenting what people have done to the environment and, by extension, themselves.
His work has always been monumental in both its subjects and its approach. For most of his four-decade career, Mr. Burtynsky sought out the greatest examples of what he wanted to document, such as strip mines, and photographed them using cameras that were 4 x 5 or 8 x 10 inches. negatives, which he printed at an oversized scale.
For a long time he turned to digital photography and he is also exploring new ways to present his work other than in books and prints. His most recent project went from oversized to gigantic.
“In the wake of progress” takes 40 years of Mr. Burtynsky’s works, including some video projects, and combines them with a powerful and emotional soundtrack composed by Phil Strong to create a multimedia experience. anyone who visited Expo 67 will probably remember The “Labyrinth” of the National Film Board of Canada.
It debuted on an extreme scale. For Toronto’s Luminato Festival, Burtynsky was allowed to take over the 22 screens that normally light up Toronto’s Dundas Square with multi-story high advertisements. He followed that up with a three-screen version, with each screen around 10 meters tall. “In the wake of progress” recently closed its doors in Toronto and is coming to Montreal this fall.
The sheer size of the projections brings dramatic changes to even Mr. Burtynsky’s most familiar works. Factory workers who appear as simple rows of people in prints or books become individuals, and details emerge in the foreground.
I spoke with Mr. Burtynsky shortly before the closing of the smaller-scale, but still very important, Toronto exhibit. Highlights of our conversation have been edited for clarity and length:
When you were offered the Dundas Square screens, did the idea immediately seduce you?
I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to have kind of an arc of my full career and to start and kind of back it up with nature, to say that we come from nature? And so it starts with an ancient, ancient forest and ends in that same forest.
It was also a way of referring to the fact that the square was a grove of trees in the not so distant past.
A lot of public art, I think, doesn’t connect directly. So I wanted to get the idea of someone leaving Nordstrom’s with their shopping bag and then, all of a sudden, being pulled into a roller coaster experience.
Why did you start photographing the effect of people on the planet?
I started photography at Ryerson and my freshman mission was: Go out and find evidence of the man. Then I started to think about how the ruins are this proof of the lives of passing humans.
I grew up in St. Catharines, where there are all these remnants of the Welland Canal—the canal has taken four different routes through time. I mapped out all the different routes, cycled them all, and then started photographing these remnants.
It was the way I like to think. It was kind of like they gave me a pass to be an alien. It was as if I had to come to this planet to report to another intelligence on what we are doing to the planet. I would show this other how we are changing the planet, how we are deforesting and turning it into farmland, how we are extracting metals from the earth, how we are using its water, how we are using technology.
Our land of plenty will eventually become a land of scarcity because all the easy things will be picked up and the land will be exhausted.
One striking thing about your work is how it reveals people’s ability to build things on an inhuman scale.
I always refer to this as the contemporary sublime. Formerly the sublime was, if we look at the romantics, nature. It was the high winds, the storm at sea. And we were eclipsed by its presence and overwhelmed and impressed by it.
The contemporary sublime is our technological revolution where we have slipped away with our own creations. We are small trucks in this big open pit mine. We create these 400 ton machines capable of moving tons of material in a single bucket.
I look for landscapes that give the impression of coming from extraterrestrial worlds, but which are nevertheless the world that we have created. These things have this surreal quality and adapt to them. There is no reason for us who live in cities to go and see these places. So I’m sort of a witness and I’m bringing these things up for review.
Originally from Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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