Beauty in The Beast
Monday, October 31, 2005
NEW YORK The photographs of Edward Burtynsky put you in an awkward spot. Take "Shipbreaking #4," an image of a couple dozen Bangladeshis dismantling a tanker. You've read the stories or heard the lore, so you know you're looking at one of the most dangerous work sites in the world, a place where men are regularly killed by falling metal, or explosions from leftover diesel and methane.
But dang, it's lovely. The colors are seductively warm, the vessel looks less like a threat than a luminous monument. The details are so crisp and the image so large -- it's 60 inches by 48 inches -- that you sense those guys would wave if you said "hello."
Ravishing, meet hazardous. Hazardous, this is ravishing. You can marvel at the beauty of "Shipbreaking #4," or you can wonder how many men in this gorgeous tableau are still among the living. Take your pick. Or switch back and forth.
Burtynsky leaves it up to you. For more than 20 years, he's been lugging his large-format camera to the mostly hidden places where the global economy and mass consumption have left their most indelible impressions: to mines, to oil refineries, to a dump where 25 million tires have created a mountain of vulcanized rubber. One of his photos depicts used oil filters in a mound large and dense enough to seem both alarming and kind of grand.
"There's a tension in his photographs between the sheer beauty of the object and the terror of the subject matter," says Sarah Kennel, a curator in the photography department of the National Gallery, which owns one of the "Shipbreaking" photos.
"He's related to people like Carleton Watkins and Timothy O'Sullivan who were doing work about the sublime in nature. Those photographers had an ideology that was propelled by a sense of manifest destiny. Burtynsky is very much in that tradition, but instead of being interested in manifest destiny he's interested in its consequences."
Well known in his native Canada, Burtynsky has registered only faintly on the fine-art seismograph in the United States until this month. That's when the Brooklyn Museum unveiled a full-on retrospective that starts in the early '80s, when Burtynsky was shooting train tracks carved into mountainsides, and ends with recent shots of factory interiors and cityscapes in China. An expanded version of the China series is also hanging on the walls of the Charles Cowles Gallery in Manhattan, a solo exhibition that also opened this month. (Speaking of piles -- you'll need one to buy a photo. Most sell for $11,000.)
Burtynsky began visiting China a few years ago, to get a close look at the building of the Three Gorges Dam, a colossal undertaking that forced the displacement of some 1.9 million people. (They lived in what is now a reservoir that stretches 350 miles upstream.) While there, he decided to shoot the country's new industrial facilities, among them the massive Deda chicken processing plant in the Jilin Province, end of the line for about 375,000 chickens a day. Burtynsky's photo of the place shows hundreds of workers in identical pink body suits and blue masks, trimming meat. Something about their formation and uniformity says "economic juggernaut."
Or maybe not. As with a lot of Burtynsky's photographs, he seems to hover above whatever argument he has provoked.
"If you are an industrialist, you might say, 'Look at my factory, isn't it beautiful?' " says Burtynsky, during a guided tour of the Brooklyn show earlier this month. "If you're an environmentalist, you might look and wonder about the pollution that is being pumped into the air."
Burtynsky is 6 feet 2 and, aside from a graying goatee, he doesn't look particularly artsy, nor is there anything pretentious or obscure about the way he discusses his work. He could pass for upper management at some small business where it's always casual Friday, which is actually what he was, for a while. In the mid-'80s he started a photographic printing company called Toronto Image Works, which he still owns and which now has 35 employees.
"I was just frustrated with having to drive to Buffalo to get good prints," he explains. "And artists tend to be so picky that by the time a printer has it to your liking they've lost money. So they don't want you to come back."