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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.
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Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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