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The beauty and the horror in Edward Burtynsky's photographs

The award-winning Canadian photographer trains his lenses on industrial operations that alter landscapes on a mind-boggling scale. They dwarf the humans that create them, and inspire both awe and horror. But, Burtynsky says, the tortured landscapes in his pictures may be appalling, but we're all implicated because the consumerist way of life most of us enjoy has been made possible by inflicting such damage on the planet.

The beauty and the horror in Edward Burtynsky's photographs: The award-winning Canadian photographer trains hi

Nickel Tailings #34, Sudbury, Ontario Canada 1996 (Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)

Edward Burtynsky's art is awesome. In the old-fashioned sense of the word … to wit, capable of inspiring awe in its beholder.

His huge photos of dams, mines, quarries, oil refineries, shipbreaking, irrigation and oil sands operations capture landscapes altered on a mind-boggling scale … dwarfing the humans and machines that create them and work inside them.

Burtynsky, though, is not simply a photographer of scale. His lens is attuned to the compelling symmetries of massive industrial sites, the striking, unexpected slashes of colour in rivers of mining tailings and the precise patterns of new cars fanning across a sprawling parking lot.
Alberta Oil Sands #6, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada 2007 (Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)

But for the average person in our industrialized consumer society, looking at Burtynsky's photos is like a squeamish meat eater walking into an abattoir.

They're a brutally beautiful acknowledgement that every gleaming skyscraper, every sleek car or aircraft, and the sculptural curves of a highway interchange … is made possible by ripping open the earth and gouging raw materials and energy out of it.
Edward Burtynsky (Birgit Kleber)

At the same time, Burtynsky's are not polemics or jeremiads. They're documents of an industrial age and a way of life defined by consumption.

They are also great works of art.
Shipbreaking # 13, Chittagong, Bangladesh 2000 (Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)
Burtynsky's work has been featured in magazines like National Geographic and in dozens of exhibitions. His work has also been the subject of the award-winning documentaries, "Manufactured Landscapes" and "Watermark".
Edward Burtynsky's "SOCAR Oil Fields #3, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006." (Nicholas Metivier Gallery/Associated Press)

He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and has received a raft of honorary degrees and enough awards to fill one of his vast photographs. Most recently, he won the Governor-General's Award for Artistic Achievement in the Visual Arts. 

The new book of Burtynsky's photography -- an overview of his 35-year career -- is called Edward Burtynsky: Essential Elements. It is curated by William A. Ewing.
Edward Burtynsky. Railcuts #4, C.N. Track, Thompson River, British Columbia, 1985. Chromogenicprint. (Edward Burtynsky/Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)


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