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Edward Burtynsky: Beauty and the Beast

Edward Burtynsky, Silver Lake Operations #3, Lake Lefroy, 2007 © Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky is a master of the industrial sublime. His hard-hitting, large-format images of the excessive scale and heavy impact of energy development and commercial manufacturing from Texan oil fields to Bangladeshi ship-breaking yards to Chinese factory floors have made him one of Canada’s most widely recognized and critically noted artists. He is also a great photographic technician whose meticulously composed and produced images expertly carry the critical weight of his subject matter.

So with perilous economic realities shaking the foundations of modern industry worldwide—not to mention the dire straights of global climate change and disappearing natural resources—there is perhaps no better time than now to take a good look at the work of the Toronto photographer.

Currently at Art45 in Montreal is a selection from Burtynsky’s latest series of mine-site photos. Photographing these sprawling industrial locations has been an ongoing concern for Burtynsky and he is still perhaps best known for a mid-1990s series depicting the seemingly post-apocalyptic or even primordial zones surrounding nickel mines in Sudbury. Shot in western Australia in 2007, these new photos are no less extreme, taking an all-seeing, bird’s eye perspective on the scarred landscapes and surreal colours of similarly enormous excavations. In the most poignant of these Australian images, Burtynsky has positioned the devastated landscapes of these industrial sites against the far off horizons of lake and ocean views, a natural juxtaposition that imbues the tragic consequences and poetic contradictions of large-scale open-air mining practices with an at once exceedingly obvious and disturbingly beautiful resonance.

Western audiences have their own opportunities to re-visit Butynsky’s iconic if bittersweet imagery in a pair of retrospective exhibitions on view in Banff and Surrey. “The Residual Landscapes,” a 25-year survey featuring photos from projects in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario as well as the US, China, Bangladesh and India, is at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies as part of the annual Calgary and Banff photo fest Exposure 2009. (An unrelated Exposure highlight: German artist Thomas Demand lectures on Friday, Feb 13, at the Banff Centre.) Running concurrently at the Surrey Art Gallery is “An Uneasy Beauty,” an omnibus exhibition of Burtynsky’s photos of industry-embedded landscapes in western Canada.

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