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August 19, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, August 19, 2005

Improbable beauty Improbable beauty (August 19, 2005)

In the scars of industry, photographer finds rich, colorful scenes

by Rebecca Wallace

Ann Burrell thought she knew what to expect from a photography exhibit about industrial impacts on the Earth: dull, gloomy images.

But she was startled by the color. Edward Burtynsky's photos show bright teal pools at the bottom of copper mines, sparkling silver oil-refinery pipes, and a red river of iron discarded from a nickel mine running like tomato soup across an Ontario field.

"Intellectually, I realized that it's really pretty ghastly, in terms of gouging out the earth," Burrell said at the exhibit in the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Still, she added, "I'm just struck by the beauty."

Her nephew Michael, visiting from England, had similar sentiments while walking around the hushed gallery dominated by the giant photos.

"It's an uneasy beauty. It's perhaps not what we should like," he said.

A response of contradictions: that's what Burtynsky expects, and what he hopes for.

While documenting the ways humans leave their mark on the planet -- mining, quarrying, cutting railroad tracks into mountains -- the Toronto photographer says he's not out to make a statement that these practices are bad. Rather, he said in a phone interview, he seeks simply to show people the effects of progress, and to spark a dialogue.

"There will be people who see this as environmentalist," he said of his work. "I can't control how it's perceived. A geologist and a miner might see it differently."

To the non-geologist and non-miner, the photographs can seem otherworldly, alien topography of minerals and heavy equipment. Burtynsky enjoys bringing people into these worlds, saying he's highlighting a major contradiction in today's society: "We have at our disposal the fruits of these processes, but we're so disconnected from where these things come from and where they go."

The "Manufactured Landscapes" exhibit, on display at the Cantor Center through Sept. 18, comes at the midpoint of Burtynsky's career, highlighting his work over the last 20 years. His first major international traveling exhibit, it has already been to Finland, Toronto, Montreal and San Diego, and will next head to the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

A short video at the exhibit includes an interview with Burtynsky on his background. Born in Ontario to Ukrainian parents, he got his first camera at 11, when his father bought an entire darkroom of material from a photographer's widow.

Burtynsky studied graphic arts and then photography. To help cover photography expenses, he worked for a time as a gold miner.

In 1981, he took a trip to the East Coast of the United States, which turned out to be a pivotal journey, he recalled in the video. He ended up cutting through a coal-mining area filled with black slag hills. Fascinated, he observed, "There was nothing that was natural."

That is, except for new birch trees springing up through the darkness. The contrast was remarkable, and Burtynsky had found his focus.

Many of Burtynsky's photographs are taken in North America. The exhibit includes images from a granite quarry in Vermont, oil fields in California, an abandoned mine shaft in Ontario and railroad tracks in British Columbia. But it also features several striking photos from Chittagong, Bangladesh, showing an ant-sized army of humans breaking down massive decommissioned ships on the beach for scrap metal and parts.

Burtynsky got the idea for his "Shipbreaking" series from a radio program on the fallout of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, in which millions of gallons of oil were spilled after the ship ran aground and the hull ruptured. After that, regulations were intensified and only double-hull ships could be insured, he said. That meant a huge number of mighty vessels would be decommissioned.

Because of environmental worries about shipbreaking, it's often done in Third World countries. So Burtynsky spent 10 days and then another three weeks in Bangladesh in 2000 watching the work, which was done in stifling heat with rudimentary tools. The ships were rusting and filled with oil and fumes.

"It's a pretty grim, very dangerous working environment. There are many casualties," Burtynsky recalled. He and his crew -- which included a translator, a driver, and people to carry and guard his heavy photography equipment -- had to stay on the alert.

One day, a worker accidentally cut into a diesel pipe, causing an explosion, Burtynsky said. Another day, a cable used to winch up heavy pieces of metal snapped, and the flying cable sliced two men in half.

"Whenever we saw cables going taut, we hightailed it out of there," Burtynsky said.

Despite the hazards, Burtynsky's "Shipbreaking" photos again manage to find something aesthetically pleasing, this time in the metal rubble on the sand.

In the catalogue for the exhibit, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker writes: "Before long, the visual affinity between the shipbreaking fields and a sculpture garden enters one's mind. We may find the parallel attractive precisely because it softens the pictures' documentary force."

Burtynsky's work requires a lot of equipment because he uses large-format viewfinder cameras, like the photographers of the 1800s he admires. That means he's under a black cloth looking at the image through a large ground-glass viewfinder. He says the format allows him to capture more details, and that it also makes him more contemplative because it's a slower method of photography.

Details do abound in his pictures: a tiny ladder left in an abandoned mine, a sickly green light bulb in an oil refinery, the sarongs on the men breaking down the ships.

In some of the most dramatic photos in the exhibit, "Nickel Tailings #34" and "Nickel Tailings #35," a viewer can see the ripples on the grotesquely red rivers of discarded minerals and the distant, wispy trees.

The photos were taken in the city of Sudbury, at the largest mine in Canada, Burtynsky said. The iron "tailings" are allowed to flow out of the nickel mine and be discarded because the material wouldn't yield a profit, he said. Ultimately the water in the material seeps down into the ground, adding to the silty mountain there that already covers 6,000 to 7,000 acres and is 145 feet high, he said.

"Every mine, whether it's gold or copper, has tailings. You can't flow the materials back into the hole you're digging in," he said.

Though the rivers look as fiery as lava, they aren't hot, Burtynsky said. But one can't completely shake the perception of seeing flowing rock, he said.

True to contradictory form, Burtynsky comes up with a very life-affirming way of describing a scene that can seem so deadly.

"These are primordial landscapes. It's almost like Earth forming again," he said.

What: "Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky," an exhibit of about 30 large-scale color works by the Canadian photographer.

Where: Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University.

When: Through Sept. 18. The center is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, staying open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays.

Cost: Free.

Info: Call (650) 723-4177 or go to

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