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14 May 2009

The Wonder of Edward Burtynsky’s Terrible Landscapes

Last week, I finally saw Manufactured Landscapes, the 2007 documentary about the work of Canadian landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky. I’ll thread some examples of his photos throughout this post.

Jubilee Operations #1

My initial take on his work, when I encountered it several years ago, was that he was a second order, more specific and politically severe version of fellow photographer Andreas Gursky. They’re certainly contemporaries, both born in 1955. But where Gursky makes pictures about contemporary capitalism — late capitalism if you are protest-minded — Burtynsky’s work not only depicts contemporary capitalism, it presents an argument against it. He is definitely protest-minded, even if one of his causes is denying that he protests. For example, in his acceptance speech for the 2005 TED prize — embedded below — he thanks the corporations which gave access to the sites he shoots, emphasizing that his images are objective and descriptive, not judgmental. When the Washington Post wrote about him they noted, “One possible rap against his portfolio — it prettifies the terrible” and he includes that quote in his bio at

But still.

Gursky’s photos are usually full of joyful human activity — anonymous joy tied to conspicuous consumption, but joy nonetheless: skiing, dancing, making money. Burtynsky’s photographs depict the horror of the distressed and modified landscape, even if that horror has been aestheticized. You can feel the horror in the colors of his liquids, the shape of his rocks, the inhumanity of the people he depicts. Perhaps if you were not from planet Earth or were raised in a bubble these images would not disturb. But if you’ve lived your life here, they will strike you all too strange.

Both of their work is amazing to behold. And while I may enjoy Gursky’s pictures more as art, I think I admire Burtynsky’s pictures more as philosophy. Gursky reframes familiar images in ways that are unfamiliar. Burtynsky reveals new images we have never seen before. Then he makes us stare at them, again and again and again. I’m not one to define the value of photography in a single phrase, but the thing Burtynsky uses photography for certainly highlights one trait unique to the medium: “The ability to make us stare at something we’ve never seen before.”


Perhaps that’s also the reason I did not value this film about him as much as I do his stills. The scale of what he’s trying to depict comes across far better as pictures than it does on videotape. Video has a way of deadening the emotional power of a horrible image. As the camera scans over a pile of bodies, it turns into a wonderful cinematic exclamation point rather than remaining the thing itself, a pile of bodies. While video is great at depicting the evolution of a singularity (the growth cycle of the orange, the flow of a river), photography is better at simultaneity, at cutting across ideas, at comparing an apple to that proverbial orange. Or, in the case of Burtynsky’s work, of showing the simultaneity of industrial horrors happening across the Earth.


These photos are about numbers, interrelations, losing count. But at least the stillness allows you to attempt the counting. Whereas on videotape, the magnitude of what he’s trying to show is somehow lost in a river of images.


Contemporary life has made all of our landscapes (literal, personal, cultural) so dense with information & toxic materials. It’s a job just to organize it all into something sensible. Burtynsky does as well as anyone I can recall.

I’ll leave you with a short trailer for Manufactured Landscape and a longer talk he gave at TED a few years before the film was made.



Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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