Interview with Edward Burtynsky | From the Mundane World: Launch Exhibition of He Art Museum

2020.10.01 -2021.02.28

How did you illustrate the contrast between the spectacular landscape and the scattered vehicles and buildings in your work Highland Valley #8? What message are you trying to deliver?  

Edward Burtynsky: The shot was created by working closely with a helicopter pilot, flying tight circles above the pit at the right distance. I wanted to convey the contemporary scale of copper mining and this was a mine that I’d originally photographed in 1983 before I was using aerial photography, and it had increased dramatically over the years since. As is consistent throughout much of my work, I try to connect the viewer to the places in the world where we get the materials that allow us to live a contemporary life. Like copper for computers, nickel to create stainless steel etc.

Highland Valley #8, Teck Cominco, Open Pit Copper Mine, Logan Lake, British Columbia, Canada, Edward Burtynsky, Chromogenic color print,121.9 × 162.6 cm, 2008,  courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto and Flowers Gallery, Hong Kong & London

Any particularly interesting/unforgettable stories behind the scenes while you are making Pengah Wall #2? Did you come through any difficulties/challenges that you never had before?  

Edward Burtynsky: This shoot was one of my most challenging photographic adventures of my career. I rented a dive boat and had 12 divers working with me to create these images. This image was taken at around 60ft underwater, where there is very little light and we had to bring in our own strobe systems. We took over 200 images that would then have to be stitched together to create this high-resolution image. It took us four separate dives, following the tides and the currents, to complete this image. 

Pengah Wall #2, Komodo National Park, Indonesia, Edward Burtynsky, Archival Pigment Print, 121.9 × 218.4 cm, 2017, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto and Flowers Gallery, Hong Kong & London

You are constantly exploring the relationship between nature and industrialization, can you tell us how did you get inspired to initiate this topic?

Edward Burtynsky: Today it has become clear to most people that we as a species are in deep overreach, in terms of harvesting natural resources and transforming the lands and oceans to support our needs. These questions weren’t as evident 40 years ago when I started, and I did not believe that it was nature that was going to suffer so greatly through the success of our technologies and population growth. 

I believe the whole body of work that I’ve done over 40 years stands as a compendium of the scale of the human imprint on the planet. 

Dandora Landfill #3, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya, Edward Burtynsky, Archival Pigment Print,121.9 × 162.6 cm, 2016, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto and Flowers Gallery, Hong Kong & London

How does the large-format photography help you to visualize your ideas in your work?

Edward Burtynsky: Earlier in my work, when I was using large format film (4x5 and 8x10), it necessitated that I slow down and take great care and contemplation to capture the images. Large format was important, as I wanted to present the images to the public as large prints, and I wanted all the details within the images to become clear and evident. Oftentimes, it is a small drum in the corner of the picture, or a ladder off to the side, that gives the viewer a cue as to the scale of the industrial site I am showing. That high resolution is key to that experience. 

Today I work in high resolution digital medium format cameras that are achieving levels of resolution that were only possible through large format film in the past. 

It’s always important to me that the viewer has a powerful visual experience exploring the details of the images that I create. 

Tanggu Port, Tianjin, China, Edward Burtynsky, Chromogenic Colour Print, 99 × 124.4 cm, 2005, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto and Flowers Gallery, Hong Kong & London

Artworks are on view at From the Mundane World: Launch Exhibition of He Art Museum

Courtesy the artist,
Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
Flowers Gallery, Hong Kong & London

About the Artist

Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer and artist known for his large-format photographs of nature transformed through industry and his investigation into our continually compromised environment.
Often shot from an aerial perspective, the photographs in Burtynsky’s major project Water take on a unique abstraction and painterly quality. Many of the images focus our attention not on water itself, but on the systems that humans have put in place in order to harness, shape and commodify it. Water follows the format of previous projects such as Oil, China and Quarries in its encyclopaedic exploration of a broad theme through a series of connected chapters or locations.
Edward Burtynsky’s works are in the collections of over fifty museums worldwide, including: Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim, New York; Tate Modern, London; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid and the National Gallery of Canada. Burtynsky is the subject of Jennifer Baichwal’s 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes. In 2014, the pair collaborated on a second film Watermark. Shot in stunning 5K ultra high-definition video and full of soaring aerial perspectives, this film shows water as a terraforming element and the scale of its reach, as well as the magnitude of our need and use. Burtynsky received the inaugural TED Prize in 2005, in 2006, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in 2012 he won the Tiffany Mark award. He holds eight honorary doctorate degrees. His distinctions also include the National Magazine Award, MOCCA award, Outreach Award at Rencontres d’Arles, ICP Infinity Award and the Kraszna Krausz Book Award.

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