Musée is a visually driven digital magazine and website dedicated to displaying the work of international photographers. Today, we present Edward Burtynsky‘s interview published in Musée Issue 7, Vol. 2.
Water, Water everywhere and not a drop to drink
What do you think are major differences in the attitude towards nature in Canada compared to the United States?
E.B. I think I’ve seen a rise in concern in 2007 and then I’ve also seen it retreat once the economy took a dive, so it is tied to people’s concern. I think I feel it’s starting to come back again because of the overwhelming evidence of climate change: with flooding, storms, and fires and larger and more hurricanes, all of those things are getting people to take note. We just saw a storm here in Toronto, which Toronto had not seen since hurricane Hazel in 1954. We’re seeing unprecedented fires as well that are starting to form because of the change in climate, the drying out of a lot of natural landscapes because it’s not getting the same amount of rainfall as in the past.
Your work focuses on the transformation of the natural world through human influence – how did that particular interest begin?
E.B. It started in the very early 80s. I had done a lot of work with straight landscapes and I was very interested in that: the photographic medium and how it can deliver a universal response to a place that we’re all familiar with. At a certain point I recognized that the pure play on landscape was somehow not aligned with our times. When I started to think about where else I could take it, there were a group of photographers who had an exhibition in 1976 called “The New Topographic”. Robert Adams was the voice of it and the difference between what they were doing versus what happened in landscape in the past, is that they were pointing their camera on the suburbs of urban sprawl. The images were no longer simply a meditation on the beauty and the forms of the nature, but became a meditation of the human impact on wilderness. Having come out of a deep respect for nature and wilderness it seemed to me that starting to photograph how we change the land to provide for our daily existence was more in line with my time than a celebration of the pristine landscape.
Can you talk about your photographic process in capturing landscapes?
E.B. I was trying to interpret landscape with color, which had a long history of shooting in black and white. So I was very sensitive to the kinds of color I was bringing in and how I was using color as well as using a large format camera. Between those two, I began to develop what I would call a visual language that could interpret these landscapes in a way that compelled people to sit and ponder them, and often bristle at the use of the word beauty. I think that beauty doesn’t accurately describe what it is. Beauty is more culturally specific: what one culture finds beautiful is not the same as what an African culture or a Chinese culture might find beautiful. But in landscape, I think it’s more universal: we all kind of innately understand that kind of photographic interpretation of place. I liked the idea that I could make these images and that they could easily cross boundaries into other cultures. I no longer see myself as a landscape photographer because I don’t go to that landscape, as lets say, Ansel Adams went to Yosemite because of the sheer beauty and magnificence of that landscape. I go to the places where human imprint is shown on a vast scale so that scale is always a signature of mine. I’m always looking for the largest example of something. Whether it’s farming and redirection of water like in the Water project or things where we got it wrong like in the draining of Owens Lake. I’m in those landscapes not for the beauty of the landscape but for what we as humans have intentionally, unconsciously altered. I see myself more as a photographer of human system within a natural landscape than a landscape photographer.
One of the photographs depicts the Xiaolangdi Dam. Dams can be a source of renewable energy but can also have detrimental and environmental effects, is this dual edged sword something that interests you? How can we balance the two?
E.B. Well you’re right, a dam has both positive and negative consequences. It’s a technological marvel in some respects. The Chinese government is saying they’re preventing flooding, and also creating a reservoir which allows for navigation so that bigger ships can transport products up river. I would say that the number one motivator is the hydroelectric power that a dam provides. This means that you don’t have to burn coal or natural gas or create nuclear power stations. But when you look at the dam, you change the whole ecosystem: all the people who lived on the banks of the river had to be relocated, and that relocation doesn’t always go well. All the other life forms in the system have been affected as well. For example, algae bloom start to form because of so much human and industrial waste, so you start having real problems with the water. Nothing comes without a price and the question is, which are the lesser evils out there?
Water has a spiritual residence in many cultures, was this something you experienced and how did it manifest?
E.B. In the Water book, I looked at the largest pilgrimage to water, which was the Kumbh Mela festival where 30 million people gather once every three years. It was quite remarkable to see a deeply held belief in bathing in the sacred area of the Ganges River and how the bathing and dunking of oneself cleanses one’s sins. Within that one month period, one hundred million Hindu Indians made the pilgrimage to cleanse their souls. If you look at the movie, we went from there to Huntington Beach for the Surfing Derby, which is a western celebration of the water’s edge and is also more of a competitive and challenging attitude towards conquering your wave. Then I went to look at the very unusual ways of in which the waters edge was manufactured in Florida. The US Army Corps of Engineers in Florida had three mangrove swamps, dredged them and then people built houses on the edge of these canals to allow people to have water front property even though these canals didn’t go anywhere – they were just fake waterfront situations. To me that was interesting. We are so compelled to want to be at the water’s edge that complete recreation of that water’s edge was better than no water’s edge at all.
Many of your pictures feature large crowds while others feature just machinery. What are the problems that you face photographing large crowds versus machinery to capture the energy of each?
E.B. I think as a photographer and an artist that becomes my focus – how do I solve these problems? How do I approach it, how do I take that idea and translate it through a lens and through a camera system? So I’m looking for the light, the time of the day, where I stand, where’s the point of view that best brings that subject into a way in which we can look at it and understand it. A lot of it is intuiting myself into that space: its always this parsing of form and content to get to this place where they’re both resolved and they both are present and neither dominate, neither the form nor content dominate the image, they both kind of coexist in an equal force.
Many of your photographs are aerial photographs, can you talk about the process of scouting and capturing those large expanses of terrain and what kind of equipment you used to do that?
E.B. Well most of the stuff I shot, I was doing both film and still. For the stills, I largely shot with a Hasselblad. I had three different systems through the five-year project: starting with a 40-megapixel camera and the one I’m working with now is a 60. The high resolution single frame, single shot camera was how I did a lot of the work with the gyro stabilizer on it to allow me to go into lower shutter speeds. Often times the best light I could work with was early morning or late evening when the sun wasn’t fully blasting. So you have to use lower shutter speeds and in a helicopter with the door off. To try and navigate all those things so that the image is sharp at a large degree of enlargement was a challenge. The key thing here is that the digital solution to aerial work was the best solution I could hope for. Film just didn’t have the resolution or the speed necessary to freeze the picture from a helicopter, whereas digital allowed me to get a shutter speed high enough to freeze these images.
The majority of your pictures feature the natural world in some respect yet in some such as Manufacturing Number 15 “Bird Mobiles China”, the natural world is entirely absent. Why is this? What effect do you think the absence of nature has on both the viewer and the subject?
E.B. Well, what I was trying to show was that all of our products, everything that we use, has its start in nature. Whether it’s wood, iron, copper or plastics from oil, they all begin in nature. They are absorbed in sunlight and transformed over millions of years. But when I went into the factories, the number one idea was that the industrial revolution has clearly landed in China and these factories are the source of conversion of natural things into products we use every day that have a Made in China stamp on them.
Can you talk about the significance of waste and excess consumption to your work?
E.B. Well if there’s anything that we as humans produce, it is waste. The waste stream is clearly the largest end of material, both in the creation of things and the end of their life. Tar, tires, fridges, microwaves and computers all have a life and entropy is a large part of that. If you look at a life cycle, you have a primary place where all the material comes from: the mines, the quarries, the oil refineries, all those things are the primary source. Then we have the middle of the life of the product, the life of it being made and the life of it being used. Lastly, there is a third life, a third state which is as waste, it either gets reprocessed or its thrown into a landfill. So to me, it’s always the challenge of what mine, what tire pile or what ship breaking yard or ship building yard becomes the place I want to use as my example of a larger activity, a larger global human activity. I’ve chosen this one because it visually resonates with me in a way, it tells that story in a visually compelling way. At the core it has to be visually compelling.
Much of your work brings life to destructive processes that many would rather remain ignorant of. Do you think your work can inspire a greater awareness of destructive influences and how can we mitigate this destruction?
E.B. For every act of creation, there’s a equal or greater act of destruction. We tend to exist in the created space and the consequences of that creation is often not considered. I always hoped that the work I do reconnects us with those spaces. When I went to the dam in China on this last project, as far as I know, I was the only Western person that had ever seen it, yet it’s six times bigger than the Hoover Dam. The camera allows me to capture what’s there and bring it back. I believe it does, on some level, enter our conscience again through the photographic process. I think it’s more powerful in terms of a compelling way to look at it then let’s say a painter going in there and painting those things we would see as more interpretive work. We look at the photograph and we still place a certain amount of truth in our authenticity that this place actually exists.
With all these projects that you’ve done, which are, for me, very high-minded and socially kind of just, has it had any affect on you personally doing these things?
E.B. Yes. I think there’s a kind of a sadness I feel when you understand the consequences of what we are doing to provide for our existence and the sheer volume and growth that we’re experiencing. Knowing that India and China are trying to get to that place that we’ve gotten to, but knowing that’s there’s just no way nature has enough material for everybody to have a lifestyle like we do here in the West, the trajectory is somewhat frightening for the future of climate, for the future of humanity and all life on the planet. We’re now the sublime force on releasing this pretty destructive machinery . We’re expanding at an unprecedented rate in a finite system and that finite system is one that keeps reminding me that we’ve got a problem here. I have a 19 year old and a 16 year old and I worry about their future. I think we’ve come through the land of plenty where we’ve seen growth – I’ve seen growth in most of my life. We’re moving through a period of plenty to a land of scarcity.
Interviewed by Andrea Blanch
310 Greenwich Street, 22K
New York, New York, 10003
+1 212 571 0588