By Mike Keenan.
Edward Burtynsky is a St. Catharines superstar, a Canadian photographer and artist known for his large format photographs of industrial landscapes, his work housed in more than 50 museums including the Guggenheim Museum, the National Gallery of Canada and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
The Art Gallery of Hamilton is fortunate to have 78 of his photos in its collection, and it is currently exhibiting his work entitled “Witness: Edward Burtynsky”, Jan. 20 – May 21, 2018. Exhibition tours are free with admission every Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday and statutory holiday at 1:00 pm.
Burtynsky was born in St. Catharines. His parents immigrated to Canada in 1951 from the Ukraine and his father found work on the production line at the local GM plant. Burtynsky recalls playing by the Welland Canal, watching ships navigate the locks. At 11, his father purchased a darkroom, including cameras and instruction manuals from a widow whose late husband had practiced amateur photography. With his father, Burtynsky learned how to make black and white prints, and together with his older sister, they established a small business taking portraits at the local Ukrainian center.
His most famous photographs are panoramic views of landscapes altered by industry: mine tailings, quarries, scrap piles. The seeming beauty of his images belie the devastation that they depict. He made several excursions to China to photograph that country’s industrial emergence, and construction of one of the world’s largest engineering projects, the Three Gorges Dam.
Most exhibited photography was taken with a large format, field camera on large 4×5-inch sheet film and developed into high-resolution, large-dimension prints of various sizes and editions ranging from 18 × 22 inches to 60 × 80 inches. He often positions himself at high-vantage points over the landscape employing elevated platforms, the natural topography, and more currently helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
Burtynsky’s distinctions include the TED Prize and the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts. In 2006 he was awarded Officer of the Order of Canada, and he currently holds seven honorary doctorate degrees.
From visceral aerial views of oil fields in Nigeria, to salt pans in India, to Italian Carrara marble quarries and nickel tailings in Sudbury, his stunning, large-format photographs made over the past three decades bear witness to environmental degradation. This exhibition celebrates a recent gift of 76 photographs donated by the artist to the AGH; the largest donation he has made to a museum.
“Witness” is an appropriate label for this showing. With his camera, Burtynsky forces one to observe how nature has been ravaged. When one first looks at Edward Burtynsky’s work, it disarmingly appears striking, replete with whirls of abstract colour and symmetrical geographical patterns, but as one zooms in to the open-pit mines, tailing ponds, quarries, dams, oilfields and factories, one becomes a witness to landscapes of environmental devastation. It is a sobering experience.
Two feature length documentary films have been made about this important St. Catharines native’s work with a third in the works.
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