Edward Burtynsky | The Saturday newspaper

Edward Burtynsky, one of the world’s greatest contemporary photographers, has spent the past four decades chronicling the mark humans have left on the world around us. His alluring, large-format images of mines and quarries, salt marshes and refineries are visual metaphors for how nature has been remade by industry. It’s an obsession he traces back to his upbringing in St Catharines, Ontario, as the son of Ukrainian immigrants. There, Burtynsky briefly worked in automobile manufacturing before enrolling in the mid-1970s at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto (now called Metropolitan University of Toronto) to study applied arts, focusing on photography.

Burtynsky’s most recent project is In the wake of progress, a multimedia work that mixes the most striking images and sequences of the artist’s career. This month it is shown on three nine-metre screens in Taylor Square as part of a special Sydney Festival presentation. Burtynsky, who began as a painter, has long been fascinated by the work of Caspar David Friedrich The sea of ​​ice (1823-1824), an ode to nature, a source of horror and beauty, which remains a touchstone of his work today.

You have always been interested in The sea of ​​ice, a painting by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. When did it first hit you?

When I left St Catharines and came to Toronto in 1976, I studied this photography program which was really experimental. There was an art history class during which the teacher chose an era [to study]. She chose the Romantics and when a slide of Friedrich’s work appeared, I remember standing up and looking at it.

It refers to an old notion of the sublime. There’s this wooden boat that can go around the world. There is a calculation error. They are caught in the pack ice and are trapped. The ice warps from natural forces and the ship is trapped by nature – nature being an all-pervading force that eclipses us. Nature is frightening but it evokes awe and wonder. I love this juxtaposition.

Fast forward 250 years and the theater is us: a big quarry, a big factory, a big city. We are overshadowed by our own cities. We are these tiny little ants walking under very big piles of sand. What I continued to do was a complete reversal of that idea. I saw what the artists of the time thought of the sublime and I said to myself, I would like to recast the sublime in a contemporary way. I used it as a starting point.

It’s like Frankenstein’s monster, isn’t it? We create things and then they overtake us. Sublime landscapes have shown us nature as a theater, but now these man-made landscapes are the theaters in which we exist.

I recently heard on a podcast that the dangers of the things we invent are like reaching into a big vase full of ping pong balls. Ping pong balls could be electric or internal combustion engine driven. Now, one of the balls we take out of the vase is AI. We don’t know which of them looks like – uh-oh!

Your photographs invite us to see things as a whole – I am thinking of series like Rail cutswhich feature blasted rock faces and Residues, your images of bright orange rivers in Ontario. In The sea of ​​icethe spectator is invited to contemplate both the beauty of the ice floes and the horror of the sinking.

If you’re standing on the street, the way the landscape stands out is very conventional. Most people are between five and six feet tall and this is their view of the world. But as soon as the foreground appears from a distance, the scale becomes more apparent. This is why elevation in my work has always played an important role. There is this sweet spot that I look for in everything I photograph where the middle ground becomes the key to composition. When you see this in The sea of ​​ice, you begin to understand the predicament they find themselves in. You realize we really messed up. It’s not good.

It is surprising that Friedrich did not actually visit the Arctic but made the painting by sketching the regularly freezing Dresden Elbe.

Frederic painted [the scene] of his imagination and some sketches and drawings – he did not go to see it first hand. In the early 90’s I realized that I had never seen a dimension stone quarry. I imagine there must have been these crazy worlds out there that must have been inversions, upside-down skyscrapers. Before Google search, I used to check career industry magazines and go to career conventions, when the quarries came to town to talk about the machines. You must have found your information in a very different way. Many of my images start like this: what does an oil refinery look like in a photo? How can I photograph it so that it is more than a pile of pipes and concrete, so that it captures scale, imagination, wonder? How do you take a picture of something and allow it to transcend banality?

Most of us haven’t been to the Arctic, but we wonder what it’s like. Our anxieties come into play when we look The sea of ​​ice too.

The Romantics were beginning to see what the Industrial Revolution would bring. They deeply understood that nature was in danger even then. Friedrich was one of the first to paint a portrait of his back on a mountain gazing and gazing. He was one of the first painters to take a small spruce tree as his subject, which then became a place of worship.

If you look at Chinese vase paintings, they worshiped nature a thousand years ago. [But] for many generations of humans, nature was just a place of survival. It was the Friedrichs who really said you could make this humble tree a subject of painting. It was very rare.

The sea of ​​ice is a study in both wonder and destruction. How do you deal with the ethical implications of creating beautiful images?

There is the idea that the photograph represents proof and testimony, which perhaps comes from journalism. It has an ethical role to be more objective. But that’s just a perception. I don’t do catastrophic aesthetics. I do not drive out the fire that ravages a city. Everything I do is business as usual. I just apply the way I photograph a city to mines, quarries. [I’m saying] that’s what it takes to make a city, to make our lives. This is my way of saying that we need to engage with our wastelands.

There is also a feeling of togetherness.

I am completely complicit! I ride in a gasoline car to photograph oil rigs. I suffer from the same challenges and problems. We have this conversation and use electricity – and most likely in Australia it is generated by burning coal.

In the wake of progress It’s really about bringing this into the public square so that people with their shopping bags going to work are caught up in this 20 minute play and taken on a journey that reminds them of where everything comes from they are engaged. The steel for their cars comes from an iron mine. Animals can no longer graze on this land. These things remind us that we are all involved.

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 as “Edward Burtynsky”.

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