Edward Burtynsky talk: notes


Join us tonight at 7 o’clock for a Visiting Artist Talk with the Los Angeles sculptor and painter Hannah Greely, who generously stepped in after the original participants fell ill. Next week we’ll have the pleasure of listening to the installation artist Zarouhie Abdalian. For now, we’ll jot down some notes from last Wednesday’s evening with Edward Burtynsky, whose Oil series is, as you know, on display at the Barrick until January 14 .

  • he remembers taking nature photographs as a boy in Canada. He was about ten years old. Observing the flattening of the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image, he thought, It changes. 
  • growing up in Canada made him acutely aware of the natural world. So much of the nation is covered by undeveloped land – “chaotic space.”
  • nature is more intricate than a city. It has incredible detail. Somewhere in that chaos there’s a picture that should always have been a picture. A photographer looks for the place where the picture comes together. Framing is vital. Six inches either way changes things.
  • at university he began using a large format camera
  • he financed his career by opening a photo processing lab. The experience and knowledge that he gained by printing photographs professionally “hands-on” for fifteen years, was “key” to the work he was doing.
  • approaching railway lines running along the sides of steep cuttings, he consciously shot them in a non-heroic way, “flat on.” (Railcuts, 1985.)
  • in the past we have had the natural sublime. He was struck by “the industrial sublime.” The superhuman scale of a copper mine near Salt Lake City. We have created the things that dwarf us.
  • shows us a photograph of a mine in Chile. Points to something that looks invisibly tiny against the scale of the hole. Says it is a bus. So much ore was exported from this mine that each person in the room probably interacts with it at least once per day, he assumes.
  • the deep mines … we have built “inverted skyscrapers.”
  • he wouldn’t have started the Oil project if he hadn’t already tackled the scale of China. He shows us photographs of the Three Gorges Dam. It’s so large that they measured a wobble in the rotation of the earth while the Dam was filling.
  • a huge field of pump jacks in the California desert. (Oil Fields #19ab, Belridge, California, USA, 2003.) An erie landscape, he says. No people. No birdsong. The repetitious squeaking of the jacks.
  •  he had been following the Oil project for years before it took him to the SOCAR fields near Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Until then he hadn’t really seen oil, he said. He had photographed tankers, pipes, machinery, but the liquid itself was always inside those things, not exposed.  It was “like blood: if you see it, something’s wrong.” Now he saw it lying in pools on the ground; now he could use the reflective qualities of the oil surface in his images.
  • he was inspired to photograph the tire pile in California (e.g., Oxford Tire Pile #9ab, Westley, California, USA, 1999) by John McPhee’s 1993 New Yorker article, Duty of Care. He contacted the author, who connected him to the owner of the pile.
  • the people dismantling obsolete oil tankers in Bangladesh were dragging the hulks ashore with winches salvaged from the ships themselves. Handheld blowtorches. They were being paid one dollar a day for an eight-hour day.
  • he has used a number of methods to lift himself into the air to take his photographs. He prefers a helicopter with the door off. Since 2010 he has been using drones. He worked with a company in Seattle to stabilize his Hasselblad in the air and beam a signal to the ground so that he could control the shot.
  • he used to use 8 x 10 film. Digital helps: you lose so many shots with film. Currently working with 1000 megapixel imagery.
  • nitrate loadings in the water systems are “the worst thing we’re doing [to the environment] right now.”


The image at the top of this post is an installation shot of Edward Burtynsky: Oil at the Marjorie Barrick Museum, taken by UNLV Photo Services / R. Marsh Stacks.



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