Toronto Programs

Edward Burtynsky establishes photography grant with Governor General's Award prize money

Renowned Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky has decided to take his Governor General's Award prize money and give it all away.

Canadian icon believes in the power of the printed page, but he's not afraid of Instagram

Edward Burtynsky wants to help up-and-coming photographers get a boost by publishing their first photo-books. (CBC)

Renowned Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky has decided to take his Governor General's Award prize money and give it all away.​

Burtynsky was honoured by the Canada Council on Monday for his work promoting environmentalism through global industrial landscape photography — and now he wants to help others promote their own unique artistic visions.

That's why he's turning the $25,000 financial portion of the award into an annual grant to help emerging Canadian photographers create and publish their first photography books. 

Edward Burtynsky's "Uranium Tailings #12, Elliott Lake, Ontario,1995" (Edward Burtynsky/McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

"I remember how hard it is to actually get a start in the medium of photography," Burtynsky, 61, told CBC Metro Morning's Matt Galloway. 

He got his first grant from the Canada Council in 1982.

"Those grants are so important. You get the wind in the back of your sails and you go out there and you've got the support of your country and you're making photographs."

The Burtynsky Grant is being established in partnership with the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. It will award $5,000 annually for the next five years to photographers who display a cohesive theme in their work that will translate well into book form.

The 'democratization' of photography 

Burtynsky admits that photography books may seem quaint in the era of Instagram and online portfolios, but he says they remain an important tool for building a career.

"It gives you that gravitas to actually get your ideas and your work out," he said. "You can send it to somebody and they'll pay attention because all of a sudden, there's some substance here, there's a context here. I think online decontextualizes a lot of things."

What's more, he said, having a book gives people a more visceral way to engage with your art.

"The book itself remains and it's not ephemeral. It's actually a solid thing, so you can sit down, put it on a table and turn the pages, see the sequence of events —  you know, see something that you don't see online."

That said, Burtynsky is not afraid of what he calls " the democratization of the medium" through smartphones and social media.

"To be afraid of images flooding the world would be like an author being afraid of words in the world," he said. 

In fact, he's recently signed up for Instagram himself. While he doesn't personally use it as an artistic tool, he sees the potential there.

"I think art can be made in any place," he said. "It's really about the artist and how they engage with the medium and how they engage with those who follow that medium."