The TH Interview: Ed Burtynsky and "Manufactured Landscapes"

TreeHugger has been a fan of photographer Ed Burtynsky's work for a long time. We first spotted it here and have enjoyed watching him branch out into film with "Manufactured Landscapes", which was recently released in the US and the UK after debuting in Toronto late last year. Ed's work has always been strikingly, hauntingly beautiful, and pairing it with moving pictures and sound gives it an interesting new dimension. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ed for a chat about his work, the film, and what it's like to visit and take photographs of some of the most environmentally-degraded places on the planet.

TreeHugger: The film -- which is really excellent, by the way -- really contextualizes your work. When you first see something like a manufactured landscape for the first time, how you react? Does it affect you differently on an artistic level, as a photographer, than it does on a personal level?Ed Burtynsky: Well, I think the work that I do, and the work that I did for 20 years before I even got to doing China, is, in a way, a lament. It's a lament for a loss of our natural world. So, in a way, the work champions that world, and looks at it, and tries to remind us that our built environment comes from somewhere, and that we just have ignored it.

We've moved on to the new ages: the Information Age, the Biological Age; that's what occupies our mind. But the Stone Age and the Iron Age and the Copper Age are all alive and well, and expanding on a level that is breathtaking. So, in a way, it's like our consciousness is forging ahead into the new world, but I think it's those old worlds that can come up from behind us and undercut our ambition, so to speak.

So, to me, the work is this meditation, is this walking through those worlds, through these wastelands that have been left behind, through that residual kind of place in the world where the taking has happened and we've walked away, and try to remind us that there is this other side to the built world that we have. And it's out there, and it's largely forgotten and abandoned, and not ever actually even seen as a subject. Very few have actually treated it as a subject.

So I felt that still photography, going to the question about art, that through kind of an artistic practice and through photography, which is, in fact, an imprint of the real world -- I think it's an artifice. It's not about reality. It's about realism, but it's not reality.

I'm using all kinds of tools and ways and approaches. That subject may look horrible at noon, but it could be magical at eight. So it's an understanding about where to be, when, how to translate it, to see potential, even when I'm witnessing it, at a point where there is no potential; so to be able to kind of look beyond.

It's sort of like going into an apartment, and it's a real fixer-upper. You can see its potential, but most people walk out because they go, "That's just a piece of... I couldn't even begin..."

TH: It's too much.

EB: That's too much. [laughs] Well, everything I go to starts as, "That's too much." And then I just begin to figure out, "Well, what can I draw out of that, to create a compelling image that brings us to that place?" So we don't avert our eyes, but we get drawn into that place.

And once they're drawn in, I think, to kind of exist in the place of the content of these images forces that person into this kind of forbidden pleasure: "I'm enjoying being in there, but there's something wrong here. Why am I enjoying this? I shouldn't be. This isn't good. This is a wasteland" or "This is a dump" or "This is a consequence of our badness," or whatever. [laughs]

And that, I think, is an interesting thing, to bring a viewer to that point, for them to begin to grapple with their own consciousness about being in that space.


TH: What do you find most uplifting about being in those spaces and being the one to draw beauty from it, and to create reactions for other people through the striking nature of your photography?

EB: Well, I think the most uplifting thing for me is the fact that, for whatever reason, I've found myself in this, making these kinds of images for a long time. And now it seems like, 25 years ago, when I started it, nobody was really paying much attention, and then, really, in the last five to 10 years, I've seen... In a way, the world has met up with some of the ideas that I've been grappling with in my work.

So in a way, the zeitgeist has kind of met 25 years of my work. And so, all of a sudden, people say, "This isn't just something he's doing. He's been doing this for a long time." It isn't like I hopped onto a wagon because everybody's hopping on. I kind of started a wagon a long time ago, and been trumbling through the desert of wastelands [laughs] for a long time trying to create this compendium and body of work that somehow is describing another aspect.

And I think what is uplifting about it is the fact that it is having an effect. I think what's happening is that people are looking at it, and are beginning to understand and kind of pick up where I think the environmental movement failed -- the a sustainability movement is, I think, a much more healthy model, and it includes both government and corporate practice, as well as what the environmentalists and certain citizens.

It kind of says, "We're all in this." None of us can work independently of each other and each has to bring... Government has to bring policy to bear onto these issues. Corporations have to take social responsibility more seriously than they have in the past and begin to kind of reshape themselves to become more sustainable. And individuals have to look at their habits and reshape them to reconsider how it is that we're using the resources of this world.

So I think all of these things are now in play, and my work has certainly become a component in that discussion. For a long time, when I looked in the history of photography, there are examples: Watkins and his photographs of the West -- that was the preservation of Yellowstone and the National Park System grew out of that; Ansel Adams adding to that through the Sierra Club and also expanding the preservation of natural worlds. You look at a guy like Lewis Hine and his work as a photographer in child labor, and child labor laws came into play with the photographs as evidence of the wrongdoing.

And I think for a long time, certainly the latter part of the 20th century, the idea that photographs can help shape social change was kind of like a lost... It didn't seem possible. But it seems that it kind of is doing that, to an extent. These images are shaping and being used as the iconographic representations of the issues that we now need to grapple with in our times.

TH: So, you may find that you're repeating yourself just a little bit, but I want to make sure that I'm understanding you. I want to quote the film's website that says, "What makes the photographs so powerful is his refusal in them to be didactic. We are all implicated here, they tell us. There are no easy answers. The film continues this approach of presenting complexity without trying to reach simplistic judgments or reductive resolutions." Given that statement, how do you expect viewers to react to the film? And what do you want people to take away from it?

EB: Well, first of all, I think that -- like a photograph on a wall -- the work of art is completed in the mind of the viewer. The print takes you a percentage of the way -- halfway -- there, but you bring your values.

So, in any given work, let's say I showed a print of one of my quarries. If a quarryman were looking at it, he's going to complete that piece differently than an environmentalist, or differently than somebody who's an art historian. They're all going to apply their own kind of reading.

So, in many ways, because there's this conscious ambiguity within the work, the work becomes almost like a Rorschach test in that. Depending on how you react to it, I can tell more about where you're coming from, from on the side of the environment or on the side of the corporation, on the side of governance or on the side of art. I could actually get a sense by your reaction to how you're completing that work.

I do feel like in the film, it does that a bit too. And what happens is that I think most people end up in the same place, just like most people end up in the same place without me saying, "You should end up in that place."

So I think the film does bring people to this kind of place... And in the China film or the "Manufactured Landscapes" film, I think that place is: "Oh my God, look at the scale of industry in China!" And this is a direct result of the consumer culture that we've developed here in the West.

It is this dance that we're doing between China as a manufacturer and us as the consumer, and this kind of transition of these things going back and forth. But we didn't really have very many images that somehow spoke to that. I mean, we had the words and we knew the ideas. The news stories, and China's the manufacturer for the world and its economy is growing 10 percent every year, it's urbanizing like no other country in the world, da, da, da. So we hear it.

But there wasn't this kind of image that correlated to what our understanding of that was. So I think the film and the images tend to kind of try to bridge, or bring through images... And I think images function in our consciousness different than film does.

Images kind of lock on. If we think of -- you're pretty young, so you probably weren't around during the Vietnam War -- but if one thinks of the Vietnam War, there was all kind of video footage of it, but it's the still images, the girl running from the napalm, Eddie Adams' (photo of) the guy being assassinated in the street.

There's like four or five iconographic images that define the war and the problems with that war, and we can call those up. We don't call up a newscast. We don't call up a movie. We don't even call up reality as a kind of like... Our memory recall, I don't remember a whole conversation that I had with somebody. I'll remember the highlights of the thing but I couldn't really replay the whole thing.

But stills allow that kind of fragment to become embedded into our memory in a way. And if we think of our own lives, photographs work that way too. You can try to remember yourself at five and you might have some vague memories. But if somebody took a photograph of you at five, then you probably even remember the clothes that you were wearing and the house and the layout and the kind of tile floors that you had and what mom used to feed you, your favorite food when you were five.

That photograph allows you to do that. If you didn't have that, you probably could never get there. It would be very hard to get back to that place using your own kind of reversal of your own life and going back to that particular place.

So, photographs, I think, are very interesting things and they do interesting things to us. And they become part of our history and they become part of our memory of how we remember the worlds that have past by. Often times we can become nostalgic towards them. Often times we can learn something about ourselves by looking back at those things.

I think that they're interesting and powerful tools to remind us where we come from, and remind us of the things that we do and the values that we uphold--they do embed a lot of these things within that. That's part of the reason why I like photographs, cause they do still hold that potential for me.

Digital of course... I mean, a lot of the art world is moving into the staged image, or the Photoshop created image. The kind of make and break with reality, even in the fact that this is a place in the world, and this is an undoctored view of it. That remains to be seen how the general public will eventually embrace this kind of new period, where that they can't rely on the photograph to actually even be a place in the world.

It's an interesting thing Alex O'Kula in one of his books said, "The myth of the photograph as always telling the truth is being replaced by the myth that a photograph always lies now." So on either side of them they are both myths. Neither do they always tell the truth, or neither do they always lie.

That somewhere in between those worlds there's a way in which we can understand them, and there are truths to be found in there--but it isn't guaranteed that all people will find them. Again it depends on who the viewer is, there's a severe complex relationship to these things, and its relationship to truth.

TH: OK. So given that most people that read this interview will be looking at it from the environmental side of things, do you think they -- the pictures, your body of work, books, and the movie, sort of all that going together -- are they meant more to encourage people to make lifestyle changes, or to get the government to make more sustainable changes, or corporations, or is it more of a wake-up call to the fact that they're all going on? Are you trying to inspire action in the environmental crowd, or is it more just to make an artistic statement?

EB: Well I think -- I mean how work ultimately ends up inspiring people to action -- I'm not really sure that it on its own has the capacity to do that. I think there's a growing concern, and a growing group of people who are I think prepared to really make changes.

I think right now governments -- especially in the West and in North America -- are painfully lacking in guidance and policy to really assist in allowing people to make better choices. I do believe policy is an important component of the movement towards a more sustainable world.

But, back to your question of whether I see the work as kind of a leverage for environmental change and a shift in consciousness. I work, I think, far more in...the zone I'm in is a little more nebulous. I know that it speaks to a lot of those things, but I am kind of interested, again in this forced ambiguity in where people need to kind of confront the material, and confront the work. It challenges them -- it begins to force out their ideas.

I think in doing that, once people kind of start coming to their own conclusions from seeing a body of my work, and beginning to sense the kind of import or weight of the consequence of those places that have been created to the service of industry and it's in the capitalist culture, that if they arrive on their own to these kinds of feelings that something is wrong here, that something needs to be addressed--I think that has a lot more potential to raise consciousness than being told, "You need to not do that."

We don't really react well being told how to behave in a certain way. But if we kind of arrive at that from understanding, that there is a consequence to our actions, and we arrive at those kind of conclusions in our own ways, I think we have a much greater chance of really shifting consciousness into a new realm of concerned citizen, and someone who wants to do the right thing for future generations.

Edward Burtynsky is internationally acclaimed for his large-scale photographs of nature transformed by industry. More of Ed's work, and Ed's thoughts, can be seen in the award-winning film "Manufactured Landscapes", now playing in theaters and soon to be available on DVD.

Tags: Ed Burtynsky | Movies | Photography | TH Interview | United Kingdom | United States

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