Burtynsky III: detachment and insignificance
One criticism of Burtynsky is that his photos de-emphasize human beings in favor of aesthetic composition, and are too detached, too impersonal and unemotional. People are lost among the lines and clutter of industrial landscapes.
Are these people seeing the same photos I’m seeing? The photos contain almost nothing but the evidence of human activity, show the scope of human activity. If anything, they are overwhelmingly emotional. When I look at the China pictures, I can’t help but think about how incredibly capable we are, about the wonder of building these huge metal structures that have never before existed and that can do things never before done in the long pre-human history of the world. At the same time, of course, the consequences of our actions are implicit in the images – the profusion of toxic metals, the dangerous working conditions, and the displacement of people from their homes.
In a way, the criticism is true, since Burtynsky does not attempt to show the effects of toxic metal contact or workers injured on the job. But I think his choice to stand back and show the endeavor itself, the construction and the mess and the normal working environment absent individual tragedy, makes a larger statement, not about one particular issue but about our resource usage practices in general. Yes, people are mostly tiny insignificant specks in these photos, but that is the position most of us have chosen for ourselves, that is a consequence of our own doing.
We’ve reduced ourselves to inconsequentiality by shunning worthy causes – social justice, higher global standards of living – in favor of hoarding luxury goods and cheap mass-produced trinkets which give rise to severe pillaging of natural resources. Instead of figuring out how to best use our resources in a communal way and make them last, we’ve become fixated on ownership, on possessing something as an individual. We have chosen personal convenience over the greater good and have indeed become isolated specks in a vast barren landscape.
If we do in fact prefer more personal photography, images with a person upfront and center, looking at Burtynsky’s work is like zooming out for a view of the larger perspective which we’ve forgotten, of the global ecological issues we’ve neglected which now have gotten a way from us, slip beyond our control, are bigger than us, just as the Burtynsky landscapes engulf us.
At the risk of offending, to me this sort of criticism of this sort of work belies a fixation with beauty, aesthetics, personal taste, that supercedes consideration of the subject matter. It comes directly out of being trained to think that we are separate from nature. As a result, we don’t see how the state of the planet has a direct bearing on our lives. Granted, if you judge Burtynsky’s photos solely by artistic, creative criteria, then maybe he’s not so original, but to me he falls squarely in on the documentary side of the line. That his work can also be exhibited as fine art is proof of how artfully they are executed.
And often this criticism is joined with the objection that Burtynsky glorifies and beautifies ugly, bad things like industrial waste, that he falls into a cliched category of photographers who are obsessed with ugly-beauty, who like to make bad photos of trash and call it art out of some anti-establishmentarian urge. Sure, there are some photos that make me feel this way, but it hardly applies to Burtynsky. In a discussion filmed as an extra on the DVD, he says that it’s not about beauty or ugliness. Rather, he works to find a visual language that is compelling, that draws people’s attention and makes them consider these industrial places, possibly in a different light.
A pile of tires or a dismantled ship is not in an of itself ugly or beautiful, and I suspect the general assumption that these things are ugly says plenty about the extent to which we do agree and acknowledge that environmental damage and the refuse from our industrial processes are unequivocally bad in a thoroughly apolitical way. This implicit understanding makes our inaction and apathy all the more unacceptable.
To me, the reasonable action following the achievement of decent standards of living is to spread it around til everyone’s got it, but instead, most of us seem to run on the desire to acquire a big house, two cars and an iPod for every family member, then acquire a bigger house, more luxurious cars and the newer version of the iPod. The vast majority of people want to make money but don’t realize their politics funnel money to the few. It really is like some sort of surreal apocalyptic distopian sci-fi story. And I have to say it: I detect something faintly apocalyptic in Burtynsky’s photos.
Sure, everyone pursues material wealth in the hope of making our lives and our families’ lives better, but we should know better. We’re indulging ourselves and there is plenty of rationallization involved. Are we really going to argue that our lives would be so much worse without the latest versions of five different electronic devices and new clothes every year?