In today’s LA Times: Christopher Knight’s thoughts on Edward Burtynsky as a dramatic updater of Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan, a “chronicler of human intervention.” It’s really good.
(The occasion is a Burtynsky show at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. A larger version of the show originated at the National Gallery of Canada (lots of cool multimedia here), and I saw an expanded version in Burtynsky’s hometown, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, last year. The show will touchdown in New York this fall at the Brooklyn Museum.)
Last year I wrote a short profile of Burtynsky for Black Book. I think he’s one our most important artists. I especially admire how his work comes out of his own biography and his own life experience (and not from an MFA degree): Burtynsky grew up in southern Ontario, the son of an auto worker who died young from cancer likely caused by exposure to PCBs. (“PCB” is, essentially, a fancy way of saying ’super-toxic oil.’) As a young lad, Ed worked in the same auto plants his father did and saw first-hand how dangerous PCBs were: Nearly everyone who had worked with his father, nearly everyone who had mucked around in the same PCBs, was dead.
I didn’t use this paragraph in my Black Book piece, but after reading Knight’s piece last night I wanted to post it. Knight points out that Watkins and others chronicled human intervention in the west. Watkins in particular photographed how Americans began to exploit one of America’s most prominent national resources: trees. Burtynsky updates their work not just formally, and not just in spirit, but by chronicling our abuse of another natural resource: oil.
Ed Burtynsky is the world’s only oil tourist. Ever since that first day of PCB cleanup at the GM plant in St. Catherine’s – they all died – Ed knew that working in industry wasn’t for him. Obviously oil drove the auto industry, but it drove everything else around Ed too. There would be no mining without the means to power the mines and transport the minerals. That was powered by oil. How are goods shipped around the world, creating the much-praised phenomenon of globalization? Oil. The ships that are destroyed and recycled in Bangladesh: What fuels those ships? Oil. The highway interchanges, truck stops, and fields of pump jacks Ed has photographed? Oil, oil, oil. Even when Ed photographed things that weren’t directly tied to oil, the connection is there. The Three Gorges Dam, which will provide one-ninth of China’s power, is considered a necessity by the Chinese because they don’t have any oil. Just dirty coal.
Related: Me on Burtynsky at Charles Cowles in 2004; tease for my Black Book story (with a great image from the Three Gorges Dam series); the remarkably good catalogue for Burtynsky’s show; Burtynsky’s own image-filled website; Burtynsky, with Bono and Robert Fischell, wins the 2004 TED Prize, complete with video and other fun.