A Terrible Beauty – Exhibition by Edward Burtynsky at the Vancouver Art Gallery

What does one do when your camera is sent off for repair? Catch up on exhibition time. So on 21 April, 2014 I set off to view Edward Burtynsky’s exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

A Terrible Beauty: Edward Burtynsky is a series of photographs produced between 1983 and 2013, and represents all key bodies of his work, eg his earlier landscapes of homestead and rail lines in British Columbia (Canada), his amazing photographs of the industrialization of China and the documenting of the building of the Three Gorges Dam. Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer who is internationally renowned for his natural and man-made landscapes.

There are forty-four photographs in this exhibition detailing the ‘manufactured landscapes’ of China, North America and Bangladesh, as well as the results of today’s consumer society and truth be told, I found the experience quite mind-boggling and came away feeling rather overwhelmed. How to do a write up on such work and where to start? I have so many thoughts running around in my head, but for now will only touch on a few points which really stood out for me.

Burtynsky’s work is big – literally and figuratively. His photographs are at minimum about 3 feet by 4 feet wide, some bigger. His bird’s eye view point of view dominates all his photographs and it is this that probably sets his work apart. Many of his works can be viewed as abstract art. When I was looking at Oil Spill #10 Oil Slick at Rip Tide, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010, it took me a while to realize that I was looking at an oil spill out at sea. Only after closer inspection did I see a soft row of clouds right at the top of the frame. By placing the horizon almost at the very top of the frame, perspective is somehow lost and one has to work at the image to decode it. Burtynsky employs this technique frequently, enhancing his neutral point of view, leaving the viewer to make what he or she wants of the photograph.

Another of his techniques that he deploys is the visual division and balance of his images. In Salinas #1 Cadiz, Spain 2013, he makes use of a railway track running diagonally across the frame, intersecting and contrasting with the curvaceous turquoise water of the river. In Shipbreaking #28, Chittagong, Bangladesh he places his subject (an old tanker) right in the centre of the top third of the frame, on the horizon, while his foreground is a black muddy morass – hardly what one would expect to find a ship sitting on. The pools of water in the mud reflect the bland, washed out sky, causing one’s eye to be drawn into the ship with its bright red hull – the only colour in the photograph in this monotone image. On a small 8 x 10 photograph this technique would be boring and predictable, but on the scale that Burtynsky displays, it serves to create an equilibrium to balance the scale of the subjects which is necessary.

My favourite photograph is Burynsky’s Marine Aquaculture #1 Luoyuan Bay, Fujian Province, China, 2012. This photograph truly comes into its own hanging on a gallery wall. If I remember correctly it was also one of the largest photographs on display. The expanse of the fish farms are only barely visible on a digital image, while on the gallery photo one can clearly see the lines of demarcating the new fish farms being put into place all the way to the horizon and is an excellent example of filling the frame. Of course Burtynsky employed a novel method of taking this photograph: he used a helicopter drone with his camera attached below in an articulating harness. It took three people to make the photograph: the drone operator, a person operating the camera’s articulation mechanism and Burtynsky to press the shutter. The back story can be seen on a video under my Multimedia section.

I guess I had a variety of non photographic reactions to this exhibition ranging across the whole political, social, economical and environmental spectrums, which I will not get into here as that would just get me off on a tangent. It is sufficient to say that after viewing the China photographs I would seriously never consider eating any foodstuff originating from that country due to the pollution that is taking place.

Burtynsky summarizes his projects very succinctly:

“While trying to accommodate the growing needs of an expanding, and very thirsty civilization, we are reshaping the Earth in colossal ways. In this new and powerful role over the planet, we are also capable of engineering our own demise. We have to learn to think more long-term about the consequences of what we are doing, while we are doing it. My hope is that these pictures will stimulate a process of thinking about something essential to our survival; something we often take for granted—until it’s gone.”

—     Edward Burtynsky

Note: For ease of accessing the photographs I have mentioned in my review, I have not used URLs pointing to Burtynsky’s site as he displays his images in a Flash Gallery and as a result they are not individually linkable.

Reference List

Edward Burtynsky http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/ (accessed 23 April, 2014)

Artsy.net https://artsy.net/artist/edward-burtynsky/auction-result/51d8a146d0c2eb5e2c000ade (accessed 23 April, 2014)

1stDibs.com http://www.1stdibs.com/art/photography/color-photography/edward-burtynsky-oil-spill-10-oil-slick-gulf-mexico/id-a_24552/ (accessed 23 April, 2014)


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