Ed Burtynsky gave a talk on 24 May 2012 as part of the programme accompanying his exhibition at the Photographers Gallery, London. I’ve been meaning to transcribe my notes on the event as they reveal a little more about his development as a photographer and his views on landscape and the environment. Although the talk was illustrated with his pictures, the lack of images in this transcription doesn’t detract from the essential points in his talk or his replies to questions. So here goes…
Brett Rogers, Director of the Photographers’ Gallery, introduced Ed and pointed out that his exhibition is only the second held at the Gallery to address environmental issues, the first being Robert Adams as part of the Deutsche Borse photography prize in 2006.
Ed worked in black & white for 12 years before becoming interested in colour in the late 1970s (since he was born in 1955 this means he’s been photographing since the age of about 12). At that time colour photography was not considered to be a serious artistic medium, but he persisted. He was also interested in landscape and abstract expressionism.
He wanted to pack as much information into an image as possible, which meant using large format film. He spent a lot of time – 4 to 5 years – honing his eye to work out how to find a cohesive frame within the chaos of a wilderness landscape. This also provided a reference point for what the pristine landscape looked like. Without this he doesn’t think he could have made his body of work, which he considers to be a “lament for the loss of nature”.
One of his first series was Rail Cuts, which showed the visual effect of rail tracks being pushed through the mountains. His various series consisted of 15 to 20 images around themes, and it was about this time that he began to be taken seriously as an art photographer, which he attributes to working in series rather than individual images.
He had the idea for a series on mining and puzzled over the question of how to move from idea to image. He decided to go for the largest mines. After photographing them he felt a connection to them by everyday interaction with the products, such as copper and gold, originating from the mines he’d visited.
He first used aerial photography to give a different perspective when taking pictures of mines in Australia. When questioned later about his choice of viewpoint he responded that an elevated view means that the middle ground doesn’t disappear as it would from eye-level. And taking the viewpoint to and aircraft or helicopter leads to a more abstract image (back to his early interest in abstract expressionism, maybe?) and a sense of scale appropriate to large subjects.
One “truth” that he picked up during a workshop with Garry Winogrand was that “when form and content are equally weighted there is potential for great tension and an image that has resonance”. Ed tries to achieve this in his landscapes.
Ed had a 5-year hiatus in his artistic work when the need to make a living took precedence and he undertook commercial work. He opened a photolab and the income from this enabled him to focus again on only the work he wanted to do. The lab also exposed him to high-quality print making, and prints have always been his preferred end point. When questioned later about the scale of his prints, he said that he liked the large prints for the bodily, almost physical, experience they give as well as the opportunity to explore the detail in them. To get this detail he has used 10 x 8 and more frequently 5 x 4 film, though in 2010 he acquired a digital camera with 60Mpx, which he finds gives more detail than 5 x 4 and enables images he could not otherwise obtain, especially the shutter speeds necessary for aerial work.
Ed started the China series in order to understand the impact of industrial development. The 3 Gorges Dam photographs show both technological development and the displacement of 1 to 2 million people to enable it. China has been a manufacturing miracle on a huge scale and with great speed, and he has tried to depict this. He has also shown the cottage industry side of recycling. He noted, too, the factory shut-downs and the bankruptcies that have occurred along the way.
In his Oil project he has tried to show the economics, the environmental impact, the cultural impact and the life cycle including the waste stream. It was interesting that at this point he started to refer to “projects” rather than “series”. This must reflect the time taken and number of images made on a topic as his work increasingly shows more research and greater depth and breadth of coverage. The concept of a 15-20 image series is long past!
Although he continues to add to previous bodies of work (he photographed the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, for example) , most of his attention goes on the new project of Water. He is particularly interested in the human and landscape interaction with water, and is using aerial views extensively to give abstract landscapes.
When questioned about his environmental stand-point – was he “environmentalist or activist?” Ed’s response was that it is not a polarised, right-or-wrong situation. We cannot just stop using oil. There are healthier ways to approach the problem. Environmentalism has been marginalised and is no longer a useful label. A better way would be to improve design so that everything can be recycled; so that what is “in the system remains in the system”. It is better to spend more on products that last longer.
One questioner challenged the use of the word “dispassionate” in connection with Ed’s work (Ed had not used this work but Brett Rogers had in her introduction). Ed’s response was that rather than dispassionate, he had applied a critical eye, and composed the images so that “the meaning is a floating point within the image”; so that it needs a response from the viewer.
The final question was about the balance between creating new work and continuing with old themes. Although Ed did occasionally return to the same place and a recurring idea, he tends to move on. He is currently co-directing a film on the Water theme in the hope of reaching a wider audience than the still images he has produced so far. Well Ed, give it a go, but please don’t stop doing what you do so well with stills photography!
See my previous blog about Ed Burtynsky’s Oil exhibition in Newfoundland and Paul Roth’s article “Oil’s slippery slope” which contains the interesting quote: “His images hint at the socio-economic complexity of the subject, but remain open-ended by creating a sense of the sublime.”