Imaging a Shattering Earth: Contemporary Photography and the Environmental Debate
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Edward Burtynsky
Born in St. Catharines, ON, in 1955
Resides in Toronto, ON

Edward Burtynsky, a native of St. Catherines, Ontario, has become internationally well known for his documentation of industrial sites all over the world. Although he spent some of his earlier years working on the assembly lines of General Motors, he always had a drive and passion for photography. When he was eleven years old, Burtynsky saw an ad in the St. Catherines Standard for some used photo equipment being sold by an elderly widow. He bought it all for 25 dollars and began by setting up a darkroom in his parents’ basement.

Burtynsky received a B.A. in Photography and Media studies from Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in Toronto. In 2004, he won the Roloff Beny Photography Book Award for his self-published piece, Before the Flood, detailing China’s Three Gorges Dam project. Burtynsky was also honored with the Technology, Entertainment, and Design Prize (TED) in 2004.

Burtynsky feels compelled to photograph environmentally challenged landscapes because he was born in a country with such a small population and a vast hinterland. In addition, the trips he took with his father to such places in his native province as Kapuskasing and Cochrane (which he describes as “God forsaken places”), compelled him to explore this kind of subject matter in his pictures. Burtynsky believes that taking these environmentally challenged pictures are very relevant to our time.

Pictures in Gallery


Works Description

Edward Burtynsky began exploring the effect of man’s industrialization of his environment with the project Manufactured Landscapes (published 2003), demonstrating humanity’s often lacerating effect upon its surroundings with sublime yet paradoxical beauty. Continuing this critical examination in China, Burtynsky uses the same large-format photographic technique to illuminate the emerging super-power’s seemingly progressive yet potentially catastrophic industrial modernization.

The photographer investigates issues such as the Three Gorges Dam, a massive hydroelectric project located on the Yangtze River. Scheduled for completion in 2009, the dam will provide electricity and inland shipping to industrial interests at a cost of nearly $75 billion and 600 square kilometers lost to flooding. Human casualties entail the relocation of 1.13 million Chinese—“the largest peacetime evacuation in history”—due to the inundation of thirteen major cities, 140 towns, and 1,300 villages. Burtynsky also explores China’s voracious appetite for steel, a hunger satiated domestically by Bao Steel, the sixth largest steel producer in the world. The corporation will supply over 16 million tons of steel in 2005, a glut cultivated from 18 million tons of the lowest-grade coal in the world. Imposing an incalculable cost upon the environment, the use of China’s bountiful yet noxious coal supply expedites the nation’s modernization while ravaging the atmosphere.

China’s appetite for raw materials combined with its enormous yet cheap labor force has made it a dumping ground for the world’s industrial and technological waste, waste that is then recycled at the expense of human and environmental health. Supplied by a colossal migration from rural to urban areas, inexpensive labor is fueling China’s industrial renaissance while also forcing the nation into a new age of urban renewal. Many older communities are being razed to accommodate larger, more modern living conditions, resulting in the hostile protests of many dislocated citizens. Burtynsky presents the nation’s burgeoning—and somewhat alarming—modern industrialism with large-scale photographic compositions that suggest awe-struck magnificence while revealing the human and environmental cost of China’s emerging majesty.

Selected Bibliography

Burtynsky, Edward. Before the Flood. Toronto: Self-published, 2003.

________. China: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2005.

Pauli, Lori. Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, in assoc. with Yale University Press, 2003.