Long before the climate crisis became a global concern, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynski traveled the world documenting what people are doing to the environment and, by extension, to themselves.
His work has always been monumental in both subject matter and approach. For much of his four-decade career, Mr. Burtynsky sought out the largest examples of what he wanted to document, such as quarries, and photographed them using 4 by 5 or 8 by 10 inch cameras. the negatives he printed on a large scale.
He has long since moved into digital photography and is also exploring new ways to present his work beyond books and print. His latest project has gone from oversized to gigantic in scale.
“On the wave of progresstakes 40 years of Mr. Burtynsky’s work, including several video projects, and combines them with a powerful, emotional soundtrack composed by Phil Strong to create a multimedia experience. Anyone who has visited Expo 67 will probably be reminded of National Film Board of Canada “Labyrinth”.
It debuted on an extreme scale. At the Luminato festival in Toronto, Mr. Burtynski was allowed to occupy the 22 screens that normally light up Toronto’s Dundas Square, with advertisements several stories high. Then he released a version with three screens, each of which is about 10 meters high. “On the wave of progress” recently closed in Toronto and will be coming to Montreal this fall.
The sheer size of the projections makes a dramatic difference even to Mr. Burtynsky’s most famous works. Factory workers, who in prints or books seem to be just rows of people, become personalities, and details come to the fore.
I spoke with Mr. Burtynsky shortly before the closing of a small but very large exhibition in Toronto. The highlights of our conversation have been edited for clarity and length:
When you were offered screens in Dundas Square, did you like the idea?
I thought: wouldn’t it be interesting to make an arc of my whole career and start and how to back it up with nature, to say that we came from nature? And so it begins with an old-growth, ancient forest and ends in that same forest.
It was also a way of indicating that the area was a grove of trees in the recent past.
I feel like a lot of public art is not directly related. So I wanted someone to leave Nordstrom with their shopping bag and then, out of the blue, get on a roller coaster.
Why did you start photographing the human impact on the planet?
I started photography at Ryerson and my assignment in my freshman year was to go and find evidence of human existence. Then I began to think about how the ruins are evidence of the passing of people’s lives.
I grew up in St. Catharines, where there are all these remnants of the Welland Canal – the canal went through four different routes in time. I mapped all the different routes, I biked them all, and then I started photographing these remnants.
It was in line with how I like to think. It was like they gave me a hall pass so I could be an alien. As if I had to come to this planet to report to another mind about what we are doing with the planet. I would show this other how we are changing the planet, how we are cutting down forests and turning them into farmland, how we are extracting metals from the earth, how we are using its water, how we are using technology.
Our land of abundance will eventually become a land of scarcity because everything readily available will be seized and the land will be depleted.
What’s amazing about your work is how it reveals the skill of humans in creating things on an inhuman scale.
I always call it modern sublime. In the past, nature was sublime, if you look at the romantics. It was a storm wind, a storm on the sea. And we seemed to be dwarfs in his presence, we were amazed and trembled before him.
The modern sublime is our technological revolution, in which we have eclipsed ourselves with our own creations. We are small trucks in this big career. We are building these 400 ton machines that can move tons of material with one bucket.
I’m looking for landscapes that seem to come from alien worlds, but this is a world that we created. These things have this surreal quality and scale for them. We, who live in cities, do not need to see these places. So I kind of testify and bring these things back to the consideration.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austin was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has been writing about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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