TL Insider Artist-In-Residence Q&A with Edward Burtynsky

TL Insider Artist-In-Residence Q&A with Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky is one of the world’s most accomplished contemporary photographers. His latest project, In the Wake of Progress, will make its virtual world premiere with Luminato Festival on October 16, 2021. We spoke with Burtynsky about his 40-year journey as an artist depicting global industrial landscapes, how his work is a call to action for collective action on climate change, and more.

How did you get your start with photography? What drew you to bearing witness to the impact of humans on the planet?

I started quite early, when I was 11. I got my first camera and had this affinity for exploring the world. It started with the idea that I can look into the three-dimensional worlds and with the press of a button, flatten it, and it becomes this image as a representation of the world, but it’s also very different. We don’t really see the world that way. We all take photographs these days. But back then, the family camera was not played with, as film was expensive and used for special occasions. I had the lucky experience that my dad was interested in art, painting and photography. And so we bought a dark room. I didn’t need to ask permission to take pictures.

I got my start in black-and-white, then eventually migrated into colour when I went to study art and photography at Ryerson. I feel most alive when I’m taking pictures and in the process of creating something. I love different ways of working with film, 3-D, AR and VR experiences, and large murals. It’s been very interesting to live through this digital revolution—a paradigm shift—where all the chemical and optical processes have to become ones and zeros. Photography is now a packet of numbers that can be delivered over the internet and can be completely reconfigured. That’s revolutionary.

Why is photography the most effective medium to communicate the scale of global industrial landscapes and their impact on the Earth?

Most people still feel there’s truth to an image, whether it deserves it or not—because as we all know, images can lie, and they’re great propaganda tools. Nevertheless, when you think of the video footage of Rodney King that started the L.A. riots, there was a veracity to that raw, amateur capturing of that moment. Citizen journalism has become embedded in our society. A lot of well-known artists have had enormous success through the understanding that we’ve entered a new age, and challenging notions of documentary and truth. I was interested in how our world can appear as if it is a surreal experience, almost beyond our imagination, and it is still the real world without the use of Photoshop as a compositional tool.

Two things needed to happen for me to produce a body of work on this scale. First, I needed to find a way to get into these factories, mines and quarries that are all behind high barbed-wire fences. My solution was to use a high-resolution image to capture what these industrial spaces are and adding an aesthetic layer to it—that was the key to getting on the other side of that gate. Second, I wanted to make art that stops somebody in their tracks: they look at it and something doesn’t add up. The image caught their imagination, made them stop and look at the world amid a deluge of imagery. In other words, you don’t need to read a whole essay to understand what you’re looking at.

Many Canadians were first introduced to your photography through the trilogy of documentary collaborations with Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas De Pencier—Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Watermark (2013) and ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch (2018), and the larger Anthropocene project. Would you say there is a narrative arc or evolution to your work throughout your career?

At first, I didn’t think there was. I was just jumping from one project to another. I started doing mines and homesteads in the early 1980s, then went to quarries and recycling plants. I kept thinking of them as random, discrete projects because they were interesting subjects. It wasn’t until I had the show at the National Gallery in 2003, Manufactured Landscapes, that I realized these were all speaking to the same issue, which is how we as a species are converting raw materials and natural resources into the things that fashion our own lives, and their source is always nature. I developed an ability to think in a larger systemic way about how we as a species are controlling these large, natural and planetary forces and using them to our benefit. We are now in a planetary existential situation where if we don’t cease and desist our activities, we stand a chance of tipping the planet into an unrecoverable state which no generation before has ever had to face.

How does your artistic approach intersect with your interest in environmental sustainability? Is there a vision or message that you’re trying to communicate to global audiences, governments and industry?

Whether it’s how to stop sending CO2 into the atmosphere, how we’re shredding biodiversity, or how we need to build a more cyclical and sustainable environment, these are all issues that I’m passionate about. I never entered this idea that my work was part of an environmental essay on the collective human ability to find things in nature to build our skyscrapers. We’re working on a scale that is frightening. The tragedy of the commons is also unfolding on a scale that no one ever imagined because of technology and population growth. These landscapes are a direct result of who we are.

In your view, will the pandemic have any lasting impact on industrial landscapes or reshape global approaches to sustainability?

I hope the impact will be that we now know we can collectively put our forces and resources together to avert disaster. We’ve spent an unprecedented amount of money to prevent soup lines and mass unemployment from happening. We also managed to come up with a vaccine in record time. We have the technology to help get us through this, to work, be educated and entertained while we’re isolating at home. We have seen that technology has helped avert the worst outcomes, get the vaccines together, and that we can marshal forces at a global scale. If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it should be that we must marshal that same force and reaction to climate change, because there’s no vaccine that we can develop to cool the oceans down. The only difference with climate change is that it doesn’t appear on our doorstep, but the proverbial frog in the pot is still getting hotter. And it’s even more dangerous than the pandemic, even though it seems further out. It’s affecting us on a daily basis—just turn on the TV and see what’s going on.

Your newest project, In the Wake of Progress, is an immersive digital experience presented in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square. What can audiences expect? 

It’s a chance for me to do a non-verbal 20-minute piece. Originally, I was asked to do something for Yonge-Dundas Square, and I thought, What can I do at the crossroads of the largest expression of consumer capitalism in Canada? I have more than 30 digital screens at my disposal to create a feedback loop linking us all back to the landscapes necessary to provide a shopping experience, from the cotton fields where you get your t-shirts, to the nickel and steel mines where the kettle you bought came from. In the Wake of Progress chronologically traces the arc of my work in a visual way that’s also put to music, with Phil Strong as composer. It’s an immersive environment that will hopefully create a visceral and emotional experience, and I’m trying to hit people on a level where they feel there’s something that we’re doing to nature that really needs to be addressed. It’s more urgent than anything I’ve ever done. In a way, it’s a visual call to action.

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