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."
Burtynsky works mostly with a 4-x-5 camera, the kind you mount on a tripod and stare through with a cape over your head. It's a complicated contraption and not easily portable. He generally totes about 150 pounds worth of gear to every shoot.
First, he has to hunt for sites to photograph. That can take months. He often hires assistants to scout locations and negotiate access. Getting on the premises frequently takes persistence and diplomacy. The Chinese, however, were positively eager to show off those factories. Floor managers even helped out when it came time to shoot the Deda plant. A foreman shut down the conveyer belt and at Burtynsky's signal, told all the workers to freeze.
"I had to keep the shutter open for two seconds and if people were moving the image would be slurred," he says. "I'd count to 10 and usually by the time I reached six, they had stilled themselves."
Once he's found a locale and good light, his methods are so painstaking they border on compulsive. He often will shoot an image on three or four different brands of film, then print each image on three or four different brands of paper. He winds up with a visual smorgasbord, then chooses the combination that produces the richest and most vivid look.
All of this effort and machinery seem to appeal to the equipment geek in Burtynsky. Noah Weinzweig, his translator and all-purpose aide in China, recounts the day that the two of them were detained by the cops in Shanghai, for allegedly shooting in a neighborhood where that wasn't permitted.
"They tell us to go back to the hotel and bring all our equipment to the police station," Weinzweig says. "I'm getting a little nervous. Ed doesn't speak Chinese so he's bored, and while we're waiting in the police station, he starts looking at his camera and he discovers some function on it that he never knew about. This gets him excited beyond belief. He's like, 'Look, Noah, this is fantastic!' Meanwhile, the cops are figuring out what to do with us. I said, 'Ed, can we talk about this later?' "
The more you know about Burtynsky's life, the more surprising the apparent neutrality of his photography seems. His father, a Ukrainian immigrant, worked for years at a GM factory in the industrial town of St. Catherines, Ontario, and died of cancer at the age of 45. Years later, Burtynsky landed a job at the same place. Management had just concluded that a lubricating oil used for decades was carcinogenic. Burtynsky and other newcomers spent months cleaning up the plant, wearing protective masks and slathered in special creams, while all of the longtime employees worked day after day pretty much coated in the oil.
"I met one guy who remembered my dad," Burtynsky recalls. "He said, 'Oh yeah, they all died young.' It turned out that very few of them lived past 50."
So where is the anger? Aren't you entitled to some artistic evidence of a grudge?
"Well, my dad and I weren't getting along very well when we parted ways, so to speak," he says. "So maybe what I feel more than anger is guilt. But I've always felt like if I said 'This is bad,' there is only one question to ask about my work and that is, do you agree with me or not? I don't think my photographs are neutral but they do allow a multiplicity of meanings."
Some of his photographs could be slapped on the front of a corporate annual report, as Burtynsky himself has noted. Which gets to one possible rap against his portfolio -- that it prettifies the terrible. Burtynsky calls his images "a second look at the scale of what we call progress," and hopes that at minimum, the images acquaint viewers with the ramifications -- he avoids the word price -- of our lifestyle. But what if viewers just see, you know, some dudes and a ship?
"Another photographer might focus on the loss of life or pollution," acknowledges Kennel of the National Gallery. "He uses beauty as a way to draw attention to something. It's a very particular strategy."
He started shooting at the age of 11, after his father bought cameras and darkroom equipment from a widow selling off her husband's gear. The Burtynskys set up in the basement of their home, mixing the chemicals using a how-to guide. The next day, Edward shot some pictures of his dog playing in the snow and developed the images that night.
"For me, it was transforming," he says of that moment. When his dad declined to fund the growing expense of all the printing paper and film, Burtynsky started selling photos of people at events at a local community center. A 5-by-7-inch photo cost 75 cents. He pocketed enough to keep snapping.
He later earned a degree at one of Canada's most prestigious art schools, then began to search for an organizing theme for his photographs. A government grant or two later, he realized that few people had any notion of where their stuff -- their cars, phones, and so on -- came from, or ultimately wound up.
"Everybody in North America has talked on the copper lines that came out of this mine," Burtynsky says, pointing to "Mines #22, Kennecott Copper Mine, Bingham Valley, Utah." The mine is a mile deep and shaped like a Roman amphitheater with seating for millions, though there's a pool of glowing green liquid where the Romans would put a stage.
"We all partake of what comes from this place, but we have no idea what it looks like."