Arts and culture

Masterpiece Fair: Edward Burtynsky exhibit to showcase environmental storytelling


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phosphor tailings pond edward burtynsky in page

Source: Phosphor Tailings Pond #2, Polk County, Florida, 2012, (c) Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Edward Burtynsky recently returned from Chile’s Atacama Desert, an ethereal, expansive place – and the driest non-polar desert in the world – where the few roads existing are cut between salt crystals that’ll rip your car tires to shreds if you stray from the path.

“This is not a very friendly place,” says the photographer. But it’s a key mining region, home to the world's largest and purest active source of lithium, an essential resource for the rechargeable batteries used in the majority of electronics.

These are the places Burtynsky has built his life’s work around, the canvases he has sought to show through new perspectives -- industrial spaces like the massive hydroelectric dam projects of China, the rivers of bright orange molten nickel tailings flowing through a blackened landscape near Sudbury. Ont., and impossibly deep quarries in the U.S. state of Vermont.

“I thought that was an interesting life's work – to bridge the urban existence with these places out there are necessary for us to be able to live the lives we want to,” he says. “So I set out to find and create this body of work and I’m now onto 35 years of this continuous gaze.”

In addition to his photographs, documentaries like Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, which focused on Burtysnky’s work, and Watermark, co-directed by the photographer and Baichwal, have catapulted his work into the environmental zeitgeist, making the Order of Canada recipient an important voice in the conversation around the environment.

Ahead of an exhibit of Burtysnky’s work in the RBC VIP Lounge at this year’s Masterpiece London Art Fair, the award-winning photographer and documentarian shared his thoughts on the conversation around water issues and how budding photographers and documentarians can stand out in a world where everyone has access to cameras.

markarfljot river edward burtynsky in page

Source: Markarfljot River#1, 2013, (c) Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

You mentioned you’d recently returned from the Atacama Desert – how does this work into your latest film/exhibition project?

The theme is the Anthropocene – the idea that we as humans have brought us to a new epoch. Oftentimes these are defined by extinction. The last time we had an extinction event at this scale was when a meteor hit the planet 65 million years ago. This time around, it’s not a meteor, it’s us, slightly slower motion but it’s having the same effect – the discovery of oil, the industrial revolution, the burning of coal for electricity… They've drilled ice cores into Antarctica taking them back 850,000 years and we've never got to this CO2 concentration in the atmosphere nor have the oceans gotten this warm or acidic. This is being driven by humans and the whole film is working with these geologists and taking their language and the things they look at, then finding large-scale visual evidence to weave a visual narrative around how they're looking at the world.

So there’s a narrative arc you have in mind for the story you want to tell?

I'm looking at images and how they relate to each other and how they relate to the idea but as an artist I'm also looking through colour and framing. There's a lot of layers before I actually pull my camera out that I have to put to bed in my mind – that’s where all the heavy lifting is and the actual execution is really the fun part… getting all the other aspects of it worked out and then permission to get to that place, that’s the hard part.

The industrial world seems to be an ongoing theme in your work. When did you start asking yourself these questions?

I started photographing mines around 1981 and shot some coal seams in Pennsylvania. In 1983, I decided to do a cross-country trip on a Canada Council grant. At that time there was no Google Earth, just mining maps. It was kind of a whole other way of exploring. Now with the power of the web and image searches and Google Earth you plan shoots in a whole different way.

Your work seemed to hit a crescendo with Manufactured Landscapes coming out more than decade ago at a time when the conversations surrounding environmental issues and social responsibility rose in volume. Looking back, how do you feel about that time?

That was when Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” came out and all that environmental discussion before the meltdown in 2008. I was certainly encouraged. I thought ‘it’s finally hit its stride, we’re now on a steady course to change,’ it seemed to be in the air, everybody seemed to be embracing the need for action. But 10 years later it comes in fits and spurts.

bay of cadiz edward burtynsky in page

Source: Bay of Cadiz, 2016, (c) Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

This is the final year for the RBC Blue Water Project, a C$50 million commitment to help protect water through grants to charitable organizations around the world. How has the conversation surrounding water issues evolved over the past decade?

I think the awareness around water issues is deeper than 10 years ago. It’s a growing concern and people have recognized that both quantity and quality of water are key to social stability. People, in general, appreciate the fact it’s not something we can push off for tomorrow. There’s an importance to ensuring there is a healthy supply of water and making sure it isn’t over-exhausted. We don't have that problem in the Great Lakes but certainly if you go to California and places like that – watching them come to the edge of disaster with this last drought… it was getting too dire.

Water is the theme of the exhibit showcasing your work at the RBC VIP Lounge at Masterpiece in London this year,but did you know RBC also has some of your work in its permanent collection?

They’ve got quite a few pieces of mine… about a dozen. They've been collecting my work for some time now and have been very supportive.

As part of Masterpiece, RBC is also sponsoring some students at a local school in London to come see your work and running a photography competition with water as the main theme. In a world where everyone has a phone with a camera in it – what advice can you give them to making their mark?

Anyone can get a hold of a pen or pencil and piece of paper but that doesn't make them a writer… it depends on what you do with it. Taking a singular great picture is no longer the bar, the bar is how you begin to build a deeper language, a deeper conceptual framework and set of ideas around what you're interested in and how you engage with that subject.

But how do you know what to engage with?

The things that are natural to you are probably your best place to begin to understand where you want to go and your own character and what makes you want to do what you want to do. But even if you love doing it, it’s going to take a lot of endurance and persistence and a lot of hard work to get good at whatever it is you choose to do. The first thing to understand is to have the dream and know where your dream may lie so when you get there you’ll say: “I’m here, now where do I go from here?” If you don’t have that destination on the horizon then you don't really know where you’re going.