Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in the work of Edward Burtynsky. He searches for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning: recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries. These are all places that outside of our normal experience and are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear.
Essential Elements comprises of a selection of photographs weaving an evocative journey through Burtynsky’s past projects, China, Manufactured Landscapes, Quarries, Oil and Water, drawing together the visual and thematic threads that connect throughout his oeuvre.
Burtynsky revealed in his recent conversation with us (The Edward Burtynsky Conversation) that William Ewing spent months assiduously sifting through Burtynsky’s whole back catalogue. He has wisely avoided publishing an obvious chronological trawl through the seemingly discrete projects that comprise Burtynsky’s past works and instead has got with an approach that looked at the juxtapositions as they made sense conceptually, aesthetically or visually.
This absence of chronology allowed him to juxtapose images that were unrelated by subject or era – the deep quarrying of Highland Valley #8 2008 faces Oxford Tire Pile #4 1999 and China Recycling #10 2004 sits opposite Car Terminal 2011.
We see plenty of iconic works but remarkably over 50% have never been published before and many never seen before.
Taking a free-flowing approach across geographical borders and over an extended period of time, the book reveals the development of an expansive formal language, from early examples of his disorienting manipulation of perspective and scale in Railcuts (1985), to the rich organic patterns of Burtynsky’s first major aerial photography project, Silver Lake Operations in Australia (2007).
Mapping the human transformation of the landscape, and documenting the residual destruction stemming from industrial processes and manufacturing, Burtynsky’s photographs present a contradiction of aesthetic seduction and ecological concerns, functioning, as he sees it, as “reflecting pools of our times”.
Amongst the photographs Ewing has selected clips of text from multiple sources, including the artist. This is an excellent book, visually gripping and nicely insightful providing a useful additional angle on the work of an important contemporary photographer.
All images are © Edward Burtynsky 2016. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.
Edward Burtynsky: Essential Elements, edited and curated by William A. Ewing is published by Thames & Hudson, 15 September 2016, £45.00 hardback
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