I’ve known of Burtynsky’s monumental photographs for over 10 years and while I could appreciate the mastery and detail of the resulting images, I was honestly not moved one way or another by his work… or so I thought. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the reason his work made me uncomfortable was because of my subconscious guilt.
You see it took some growing up to realize that what his compelling work is showing us is how we are distressing nature for our immediate benefit. We all want to live well, yet consciously or subconsciously we know that by using oil, for example, we are partaking in the suffering of our natural system. And it was this visual “in your face” depiction by the Canadian artist’s oil fields, mines, rail cuts and homesteads, that made me feel slightly inadequate as an observer.
Understanding this, his work now takes a different meaning and now I know why he is sought after and held in some of the best public and private photography collections in the world. His subtle message has gravitas and the visual depiction is unparalleled in its artistic abstract expression.
His current project “Water” started in 2008 and is tentatively to conclude in 2013. The overall project revolves around trying to capture the effects of industry on water in all its dimensions. The present images are part of his Gulf of Mexico subseries in which the respected photographer shows in a very abstract but poignant way how the pristine landscape of the Gulf was thrown “out-of-whack” during the terrible BP oil accident of 2010.
Aside from being magnificent, albeit tragic, visual images, I can now better appreciate Burtynsky’s work knowing their backstory and fully understand the inherent beauty behind his glorious photos.
image credits: © Edward Burtynsky. The artist is represented by the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York where his work is included in the current summer exhibition through 20 July.
Images in order: Oil Spill #14, March Islands, Gulf of Mexico | Oil Spill #1, REM Forza, Gulf of Mexico | Oil Spill #9, oil slick at rip tide, Gulf of Mexico.