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Nickel Tailings #30, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996. This and other photos are on display at the Glenbow until April 9 as part of the exhibit Edward Burtynsky: Encounters.
courtesy Edward Burtynsky/Glenbow Museum

Glenbow Museum Encounters Edward Burtynsky

Toronto photographer finds dark beauty of humanity in Earth's industrial grime

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Edward Burtynsky hopes his images are seen as "as reflecting pools of our time." These photographs of human industry and landscapes warped by the extraction of the planet's resources are not only frames-- they're statements of truth.

The Toronto photographer's subjects are quite diverse-- marine oil fields, workers' dorms in southern China's manufacturing plants, and Bangladeshi ship demolition yards.But the common thread weaving Burtynsky's work together is how human interactions with the planet are altering its landscape.

As one wanders through the Edward Burtynsky: Encounters exhibit, currently on display at Calgary's Glenbow Museum, it is easy to see a sort of beauty in the destruction of our planet. Burtynsky's photo of the bizarre geometry of Carrara, Italy's marble quarries-- from which the marble for both Michelangelo's David and modern-day kitchen counter-tops have been removed-- shows the power of humans to alter the Earth's landscapes beyond anything even remotely resembling nature.

The exhibit's images are selected by various guest curators from across Canada, ranging from Olympic medalist Mark Tewksbury and media personality George Stromboulopoulos to Calgary's Glendale School's grade 5 and 6 students.

CBC Radio host Jim Brown is one guest curator. "[The images] that struck me were the tightly cropped ones, where you weren't really sure what you were seeing," says Brown. "I just like the fact that the context is sort of removed . . . they've got a strange painterly quality to them."

The prints are also substantially sized and detailed. Take National Film Board director and animator Cam Christiansen's selection, for example-- from afar it may look like a picture of a massive ship under construction in China's Zhejiang province, but dozens of workers' bicycles are tucked neatly underneath the ship's bow. This makes it seem as though the bicycles are the only thing propping up the precariously perched vessel.

Beyond the contrast between the images' massive size and tiny details, the photographic beauty of Burtynsky's work is juxtaposed with the unseemly nature of its subject matter.

"How can a mountain that has been scraped for marble or granite be beautiful?" asks Brown. "But the way it's shot and framed, and the way [Burtynsky] composes it, turns it into something that is actually quite beautiful."

When Burtynsky explores poverty in Bangladesh, "he doesn't show a woman crying over a sick or starving child," says Brown-- instead, he focuses on decrepit tankers, creating an intellectual response rather than an emotional one.

"You're more likely to have a lasting effect on someone if you engage them intellectually," remarks Brown.

A photo captures an exceptional moment in time, but Burtynsky doesn't capture exceptional moments. Instead, he takes the everyday and the industrial processes that shape it to create an exceptional composition that allows us to pause and reflect on our place in the world.

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