The Manufactured Landscapes of Ed Burtynsky

Tanggu Port, Tianjin, 2005. Click on images to enlarge. Manufactured Landscapes is a film I caught by chance in NYC the other day. I hadn't heard much about it but I saw the name

Tanggu Port, Tianjin, 2005. Click on images to enlarge.

Manufactured Landscapes is a film I caught by chance in NYC the other day. I hadn’t heard much about it but I saw the name “Edward Burtynsky” on some blurb and so trotted right off to the cinema.

Burtynsky produces the most extraordinarily beautiful photographs of the most aw(e)ful, man-made scenery in the world. The film tracks his journeys through countries such as China and Bangladesh, giving a behind the scenes look at his process of creating images that capture life far, far from the usual tourist spots. For Burtynsky focuses his lens on factories, mines, oil refineries and areas in which human beings have wrought intense change to the natural landscape.

This documentary has some great moments, including the negotiations between Burtynsky, his assistant and the bigwigs at Shanghai Baosteel Group, in China, one of the largest steel producers in the world, which supplies companies including Audi, GM, and Ford. “You’re not likely to find much that’s beautiful to photograph here”, went the argument to Burtynsky, who delicately, graciously but firmly refuses to be shut down, instead persuading those powers-that-be that perhaps he might be able to find the inherent beauty in the harsh industrial landscape. He did, too.

Check out more images (with thanks to Marcus Schubert and the office of Edward Burtynsky for their kind permission to show them here) and more info on some of the photographer’s other projects, after the jump…

Manufacturing #10A and 10B, Cankun Factory, Xiamen City, 2005.

Burtynsky's shots are breathtaking even as it can be hard to get to grips with them. Human beings (such as those working in the Chinese factory, above) are more a brush stroke of form and color than real people. His photographs of huge piles of recycling materials are abstract and graphic enough to be astonishingly gorgeous -- though the effect on the health of those who pick through it by hand to find reusable shards of metal is quite horrifying.

China Recycling #25, Cankun Aluminum, Xiamen City, Fujian Province, 2005.

This film provides some human back stories, not in detail, but by showing the juxtaposition of some people's existences with the quickly forgotten remnants of others' lives.

In another series, Burtynsky photographed the world's largest engineering and construction site, the Three Gorges Dam project along the Yangtze River in Hubei province in China.

Three Gorges Dam Project, Feng Jie #5, Yangtze River, China 2002.

This project seems to sum up the modern condition, along with its myriad confusing contradictions. The dam, which will be fully operational in 2009, will generate 84 billion kilowatts-per-hour of electricity. Hydro electric = clean = good, right? After all, everyone's talking about how China needs to be rigorous in its pursuit of environmentally responsible energy policies. Well, apart from the less well-documented, less brilliant environmental side effects of hydro power, there's also the disruption of the 1.2 million agricultural workers whose lives and lifestyles were unceremoniously destroyed by the dam.

Burtynsky is careful to offer no easy answers. He doesn't pass judgement on what he sees, nor does he preach at his audience. As a result, his shots are much more powerful and stay in your head that much longer. There's a lot of hysteria out there at the moment, and while there's a lot to be hysterical about, this more thoughtful approach speaks just as loudly.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.