Master photographer Edward Burtynsky lays bare the price of progress
It was an evening the Branksome Hall community won't soon forget. World-renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky shared a stunning overview of his life's work. Starting with his earliest landscape images—close-up tangles of bramble in Northern Ontario—he presented an unrelenting one-hour catalogue of human planetary devastation, mesmerizing the hushed audience of 400.
The event was hosted by the Branksome Hall Parents' Association in the Athletic and Wellness Centre gym, Tuesday, March 3.
“The most complex detail you’ll ever see is by walking in the forest,” said the St. Catharine’s, ON native. “I learned to get a sense of what nature intended for the land; I had plentiful exposure to raw nature.”
Indeed, the evening was an unsentimental eulogy for the raw nature that’s increasingly imperilled. “The work I am doing is a lament for nature as our success rolls out in an unprecedented way,” he said.
Burtynsky’s image collections showcase various industrial projects, often requiring more than decade of worldwide travel to complete, everything from mining projects to oil sands, quarries to highways. For example, he was the first to document large-scale Chinese manufacturing plants. And he spent 17 years documenting close to 60 quarries. “These are worlds largely unseen,” he said. “They are reverse architecture, like skyscrapers deep into the ground.”
Burtynsky’s large-format colour prints, often captured by aerial photography, do much to convey the incomprensible scale of the devastation he documents. “I wanted to take colour photography to the fore; I wanted to take it to the next level,” he said about his pioneering achievement in giving colour photography its more recently earned respect as an art form.
Students in attendance did much to enhance the discussion. They have been studying Burtynsky’s work in Diploma English, Diploma Art and Film, Geography and Environmental Systems and Societies classes, examining for example, how photographic imagery creates an impact that differs from how science conveys meaning.
“Developing interdisciplinary thinking is at the core of the International Baccalaureate philosophy,” said Deputy Principal Karrie Weinstock in her opening remarks. “Edward Burtynsky’s work is a powerful catalyst for students to engage in this process, and will help equip them with the skills they need to make a positive difference in the future.”
Guests were also invited to download and make use of an “augmented reality” app prior to the discussion. Co-founded by Burtynsky and Vikas Gupta of Avara Media the app allows users to connect with endangered ecosystems and animals, whether it’s tigers in Sumatra or polar bears in Nunavut.
“Understanding [Burtynsky’s] artistic practice, path and craft was magical even in light of the resounding message,” said Junior School parent and Branksome Hall Parents' Association member Taliferro Jones.
If the pen is mightier than the sword, Burtynsky’s camera is a gentle giant, an unsentimental observer and relentless documenter of human devastation. It’s startling to think that our enduring and perhaps perplexing legacy for future generations, within the fossil record, will be one of concrete, aluminum and plastic. As Burtynsky said: “The number one thing we create is waste.”