Unnatural beauty

Burtynsky captures the uneasy yet alluring moments where man meets nature

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 2, 2009
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Edward Burtynsky takes big pictures of a very big subject: man's alteration of the natural environment. A Canadian, he's photographed all over the world - China, Australia, Bangladesh, even ostensibly pristine Vermont - to record what he describes as "metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence."

That dilemma is our simultaneous need to exploit the natural world and preserve it. The dilemma becomes all the more complicated, as Burtynsky's pictures attest, because that exploitation can lend itself to magnificence as well as horror. The mightiness of mankind's feats of engineering really can make for great visuals. One of the things that sets Burtynsky apart is his unwillingness to ignore either side of the equation.

There are only a dozen images in "Manufactured Landscapes: Photography Works by Edward Burtynsky," which runs at the Museum of Science through Sept. 7. They're so large, though (4 feet by 5 feet), that measured just in square inches they could qualify as a retrospective for most other photographers. Size is no gimmick for Burtynsky. It's not just that his subject matter tends to be so imposing. All his work depends on a tension between scale and detail. He's as much reporter as artist. His images are dense with information as well as shock.

It's important to note that Burtynsky does nothing to exaggerate the shock. The most impressive thing about his pictures is their dispassion. His titles are like something you'd find on specimen labels. They underscore the clinical nature of his enterprise. It's hard to come up with a blander title than "Oil Fields No. 13," a picture of a California petroleum operation. Yet there's nothing bland about the impact of the image. Burtynsky records an infestation of beige, interrupted only by the skeletal structures of the derricks. In another context, their grim black shapes would them selves seem to infest the terrain. Here they come as visual relief.

"Kennecott Copper Mine No. 22" could be a sign on a road map - the words are that straightforward. Yet any driver glimpsing the sight of the mine would likely drive off the highway. It looks like some sort of concave Incan temple - Machu Picchu gone mad? - the grandeur mocked by a Nyquil-hued puddle at the bottom of the excavation. That sickeningly unnatural shade of green may well be the most distressing thing in the show.

Usually, Burtynsky uses color with great restraint and effectiveness. A single verdigris'd tire in "Oxford Tire Pile No. 1" sets off the thousands of black ones surrounding it. Or the smudge of orange from a small fire in "Three Gorges Dam Project, Feng Jie No. 5" casts the surrounding desolation in even greater relief.

Burtynsky lets the terribleness of these landscapes, no less than their aberrant majesty, speak for itself. At first glance, the snaking stream in "Nickel Tailings No. 34" has the alluring glow of a river seen at sunset - until closer examination reveals a fierce, contaminated beauty that's anything but natural.

With its criss-crossing structures in the foreground and smokestacks in back, "Bao Steel No. 2," recalls Charles Sheeler's most famous River Rouge picture from the 1920s. Exacting Modernist that he was, Sheeler would never have allowed anything like the squarish puff of smoke Burtynsky places almost in the middle of his picture (it's a lovely touch). There's a more fundamental difference. Sheeler felt reverence, as well as awe, for the structures he was documenting.

It's not just heavy industry Burtynsky records. Profit-seeking depredation of the environment on a large scale is no recent development. "Vermont Marble Company No. 5" shows an abandoned 19th-century quarry. Thanks to the water in the quarry, it resembles one of Frank Gohlke's Sudbury River pictures. Not that rivers have square holes in the middle of them. Surrounded by birches and autumn leaves, Burtynsky's photograph looks like a particularly large grave in a particularly handsome cemetery.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES: Photographic Works by Edward Burtynsky

At the Museum of Science, Science Park, through Sept. 7. Call 617-589-0100 or go to