‘We all participate’ – Edward Burtynsky on photographing the epic ravaging of Earth

When Edward Burtynsky and I first speak, he’s been organising a print sale for Ukraine: editions of two large-format photographs, which raise nearly C$750,000 (£455,000) in a matter of hours.

It takes me a moment to remember that this is personal, very much so – Burtynsky may have grown up on the shoreline of Lake Ontario but his parents emigrated from Ukraine in the late 1940s. His mother fled starvation under the Soviets, before being forced into a labour camp by the Nazis. Now 97, she has been watching the news obsessively. Burtynsky’s sister has been fielding texts from relatives in and around Kyiv, with an eye to getting them to Canada if necessary.

“It’s kind of surreal,” says the artist, his voice flat. “They’re frightened, they’re hearing bombs all the time. It feels very real, you know?” They’re OK? “Currently.”

He should have been making photographs in Ukraine last year, he adds; a project exploring the country’s industrial history and his own roots. Perhaps even portraits – something he hasn’t done for ages. It’s not going to happen for the moment, though as soon as it’s safe he is determined to get out and collaborate with a Ukrainian photographer he admires, Maxim Dondyuk.

He is shaking his head. “Unbelievable, the amount of hate and trauma that’s being inflicted. [Putin]’s destroying the future of a whole generation of Russians and traumatising the whole country of Ukraine. It’ll take generations to heal.”

Burtynsky may generally focus on landscapes rather than faces, but trauma – and its lasting impact – is very much his subject. There is perhaps no greater chronicler alive of the injuries that humans have inflicted on the planet. From teetering tyre dumps to toxic lakes, oilfields stained acid yellow and hills stripped bare by drought, Burtynsky has crisscrossed the globe in search of images that show what we have really done to the world.

The interesting paradox, though, is the epic allure he finds in such scenes. Looking at vertiginous quarries in Portugal (“inverted skyscrapers”, he’s called them) or green farmland somehow conjured out of the arid Texas plains, you don’t always know whether to feel awe at the ingenuity by which such resources are extracted, or despair at whether the damage can ever be healed. Sometimes, all you can do is admire the formal power of these photographs, which are now in major museums worldwide and as intricately composed as abstract paintings by Willem de Kooning or Clyfford Still. Other times, you need to look close to convince yourself they’re not actually paintings.

Speaking as he’s about to receive a lifetime award from the World Photography Organisation, Burtynsky himself admits he doesn’t always know what to feel. On one level, his images are a “lament for loss”, but there’s also a kind of wonder at these scenes: at creation as well as destruction. “I don’t quite have an explanation for why it’s interesting, but I take the photograph anyway,” he says cautiously. “I trust my instincts.”

Growing up in the blue-collar city of St Catharines, Ontario, during the 1960s, he saw industry everywhere. General Motors was the biggest employer, and noise from the car plant “pounded through the city all the time”. His father worked there until being diagnosed with cancer – a result, Burtynsky believes, of chemicals he’d been exposed to on the welding line. He was dead at 45.

It was his dad who gave him his first camera, a 35mm Minolta. You don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to see some connection between what Burtynsky does and his father’s experience, or the fragile balance his images find between life and death, beauty and creeping horror. Later, to pay himself through art school, Burtynsky also worked at GM, helping clean up some of the toxic sludge that he suspects had killed his father. “Men were still working up to their elbows in the oil at the time,” he remembers, “which felt almost like a death sentence to me.” He also spent five months underground in a goldmine.

“My dad worked on one side of this brick wall and I got to see the other side,” he reflects. “I felt, we don’t really understand the worlds that exist to make a car – the machines that make the machines, you know?” The colours he remembers especially vividly: “Guys in the forge plants wearing these aluminium suits, casting red-hot ingots.”

After a few embarrassing attempts at street photography, Burtynsky was given a student assignment to search out “evidence of man”, and found it in an unexpected place: an abandoned shipping canal that once connected the Great Lakes. Yet it wasn’t until 1982, when he got lost on a trip through coal country in Pennsylvania and found the remains of a mine, that it all began to connect. “It was a rich world to take the camera into,” he says.

Early on, Burtynsky knew that he wanted to shoot big and shoot slow, travelling with a galumphing 8×10 bellows field camera, heavy lenses, tripods – a car boot full of equipment that would enable him to make prints large enough to show these scenes in all their brutal majesty.

Problem was, no one wanted to buy them. The few people who were interested in large-format colour photography (then largely used in advertising) didn’t want railway cuttings or contaminated watercourses on the wall, no matter how aesthetically impressive. With his then-wife Jeannie Baxter, he set up a specialist photo lab in Toronto to provide an income; it was only when a collector offered to bankroll him that he was able to devote himself to picture-making.

He chose quarries as his first project: “I had never seen a picture of one, and that began my research. Where are these places? What do they look like?”

Burtynsky’s work in the decades since has been patient and consistent, almost as relentless as the processes he documents. One strand has focused on mining – rock faces gouged by explosives and louring mountains of spoil from Montana to China to Australia. Another series (his most famous) visited the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong in Bangladesh: mighty rusted hulls being dismembered like dead whales, lit by Turner-esque oxyacetylene sparks.

Turner, who was equally fascinated by what’s been called the “industrial sublime”, might be a suggestive comparison. Certainly, Burtynsky’s landscapes make those by romanticising photographers such as Ansel Adams, framed to exclude any hint of human involvement, seem chintzy.

Multi-year, multi-continent projects on oil and water have led inexorably to the biggest subject of all, the climate crisis, which culminated in 2018’s Anthropocene, a photobook and film. Burtynsky’s current assignment, images from which will be on display in London, traverses Africa – a continent he has visited often – and includes landscapes more conventionally picturesque than many he has made before.

Wherever you look, it’s impossible to escape climate, he says. “We’re on the very edge of losing it, whether it’s the corals, the ancient forests, flora and fauna in Africa, the oceans and fish.”

What drives him? Sometimes his photographs echo those of socially concerned photojournalists such as Sebastião Salgado; sometimes they’re more formalist, closer to Düsseldorf photographers including Thomas Struth or Candida Höfer. Is he an activist? He doesn’t think so. He says his work is “revelatory, not accusatory”.

He’s not a disaster photographer, he adds – or, if he is, we’re all implicated. “If this is a disaster, then look around your house, at your car and your fridge. What’s in there? Where does it come from? We are all participating in these landscapes,” he says. “Including me.”

These days he works with enough assistants and fixers to supply a Victorian expedition, but his workflow remains essentially the same: research locations (often using Google Maps), negotiate access (he’s relaxed if his prints of factories or refineries end up on boardroom walls, he says; it’s a price worth paying), hire drone operators or helicopter pilots to get his cameras to where he wants to get them, and then spend months editing.

Though the technology he uses is state-of-the art – his current squeeze is a 150-megapixel Danish model that costs £40,000 – every print is meticulously produced by his team in Toronto, with Burtynsky controlling every aspect.

Perhaps needless to say, these days he has no sales problems: his pictures go for tens of thousands of dollars, though Burtynsky seems discomfited by the glitzier reaches of the art world. “It gets a little distasteful,” he says. “The commoditisation of it.”

The pandemic grounded him, but also forced him back to basics. He spent much of 2020 prowling the backwoods near his house in rural Ontario, camera in hand, working alone for the first time in many years. The pictures that resulted, a series he called Natural Order, seem quieter and more meditative than in a long time: tangled undergrowth, splodges of bright lichen on tree bark, crimson-coloured dogwood springing out of the tawny spring earth.

I say I’m struck by the fact that, much like in his Africa photographs, the impact of humans is less obvious here; if there’s trauma in these images, it’s hard to detect. Is he softening in his late 60s? He chuckles. “I’ve always come back to this landscape to recentre myself and decide what’s important. Being in nature is not a cliche. It’s very real.”

Perhaps the dogwood – a wily survivor – holds a lesson, he adds. “If we are eliminated from the world, if we somehow screw this up, what I’m looking at in those pictures will endure.”

He glances towards the window. “We may not survive, but what’s out there will.”

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