by Sally Blake Hooff
We all take photographs for personal records. The professional, however, is beyond sentiment and can use his images in any format. Edward Burtynsky is an Ontario photographer whose works are monumental. They look splendid in the Art Gallery at Confederation Centre.
Four brilliantly-coloured scenes from container ports at Delta, British Columbia, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, appear above the stairs, Canada’s contemporary bookends of giant metal boxes. Then at the entrance to the gallery hangs a dark, threatening but very beautiful landscape. Could it be an Island beach at dusk? No, these are nickel tailings from Sudbury, fierce reds from neither surface soil nor sky above. The subtle greens and yellow of a companion piece are from no natural lake but of the Inco Tailings Pond. And is the third print a magical study of snow or an elegant cloudscape? No, more nickel tailings, cold as ice.
Burtynsky confronts us with more industrial residue in ghastly yet decorative patterns of tin cans and auto engines from Hamilton, Ontario, and a tire pile from California. The detritus of North American industry leads naturally to the terrifying scenes from Chittagong in Bangladesh where rotting ships from around the world are broken up. In one print workmen are watched by relaxed adults and children, but they and the close-ups of rusting metal are suffused with satanic red light.
Not so the prints from a 2002 expedition to the Yangtze River where the artist records in the cool greenish-grays of Northern China the Three Gorges Dam project. In Wushan apartments are being demolished apparently by hand while some are still occupied! We see close-ups of men extracting recyclable materials from shapeless messes of broken concrete and bricks, high above the misty river and a bridge as ancient as the willow pattern.
Less emotionally charged are the architectural forms in deserted marble quarries. Even the mazes of parallel piping in oil refineries and glistening new pipes snaking through grass and boreal forest at Cold Lake seem relatively benign, but beside these loom the most desolate of all Burtynsky’s images, oil derricks in a California desert, nodding in regimented rows into infinity. Around such gruesome corrals the artist uses high stepladders to photograph where he cannot trespass. In 2004 he rented a helicopter to shoot from the air a Volkswagen lot in Texas. Try to count the cars. The implications of these scenes are awful. We are all complicit in the paving of North America.
And the early Western landscapes? Busy backyards in the Rockies and a tiny lone house in prairie foothills where a distant river seems unpolluted in 1983, a far cry from today’s destruction in China’s Three Gorges. Yet the brave strands of macramé on a British Columbia washing line find their echo in the bright clothes hanging on a rooftop in Wushan. Burtynsky’s vision makes the connection.