“For me, photography is a way to mine ideas that are things.”
For most of its history, photography has identified with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment” about which the French photographer said “photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
It is a definition that Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky rejects in favor of “The Contemplated Moment.” Burtynsky presents a more nuanced view of the world than that of the snapshot no matter how significant. As he says in Exploring the Residual Landscape “These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire - a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success.”
A point Burtynsky underscores when talking about his Water Project. As he told Wired Magazine’s Doug Birend “Rather than kind of chasing the bad actors and celebrating the saints, I just thought why not just put water as the central issue and make it the subject. In the whole environmental debate there’s been a lot of brick throwing and condemnation from one group to another, and I’m not sure how much it has helped.”
It is a similar breadth of contemplation that led to Burtynsky’s arguable best known, four part, Oil Project; Extraction and Refinement, Transportation and Motor Culture, Detroit and The End of Oil. As he wrote in the project’s statement “The car that I drove cross-country began to represent not only freedom, but also something much more conflicted. I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of energy that makes everything possible, and as a source of dread, for its ongoing endangerment of our habitat.”
Burtynsky was 11 when along with his sister and father, he learned the intricacies of photography. After a stint at Ryerson University where he gained a BA in photography Burtynsky realized that the world of his hero, Ansell Adams was long gone and as he has said “I recognized that this was not the landscape of my time anymore, that the landscapes of my time were the ones where we change what was nature in terms of the things we use. That, to me, was a quantum shift. It was all of a sudden not looking at landscape.”
Often using a high point of view, Burtynsky makes strangely beautiful photographs of the tragically scarred landscape we leave behind. As reported in an Artsy editorial about his Ted wish, Burtynsky has said of his images “It gets people to look at these things, it gets people to enter.” And in line with his Ted wish of sustainability, “We have to learn to think more long-term about the consequences of what we are doing, while we are doing it.”
Exhibitions of Burtynsky’s photographs are currently on show at Innsbruck’s FO.KU.S Gallery until the 9th of May, Chaumont-sur-Loire’s Domaine Régional until the 1st of November, Massachusetts Fruitlands Museum until the 21st of June and Los Angeles Von Lintel Gallery until the 20th of June.