Burtynsky IV: a bad review
Apparently some people bristle at the thought of greater goals, criticize others for hoping for an improved world and have become so wrapped up in small matters and individual displays of taste that they can’t see the world in front of their nose. It’s mind-boggling that this old review of a Burtynsky show was actually published in the New York Times.
I’m usually not a fan of breaking down negative articles and responding to them, but this piece was so inscrutably negative, it riles me. It was on the verge of being vicious. Any sort of real visual critique was so thin it was almost absent, and the piece consists mostly of cheapshots that are pretty much outright insults and snide comments made based on the reviewer, Ken Johnson’s vacuous and uninspired interpretation of Burtynsky’s works, on his assumption that Burtynsky has an agenda and the photos are lies. He looks at Burtynsky’s work and sees Hollywood, of all things. In fact, his whole argument is basically “we’ve seen it before, the scenes are too big, therefore it’s crap.”
I cannot understand why they published it at all. Here it is:
Edward Burtynsky, the Canadian photographer whose large, sumptuous and numbingly cliched color pictures are in a big exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, specializes in a familiar genre that historians have called “the industrial sublime.” Whether shooting small things close-up (piles of discarded circuit boards awaiting recycling, for example) or big things from a distance (like marble quarries in India), he frames the subject so that it not only fills the entire picture but also, you can’t help imagining, extends almost infinitely in every direction. The effect is disorienting, awesome and alarming. The extremely detailed images often look like scenes in a Hollywood thriller. But Mr. Burtynsky has more high-minded motives. He wants to show people how human activities have altered, for better or worse, our experience of the earth’s natural topography.
One of the problems with Mr. Burtynsky’s photography is that he uses the same pumped-up pictorial rhetoric of shock and awe in almost every one of the more than 60 works on view. This produces a monotonous effect and, what’s worse, a loss of representational credibility. By applying the same compositional formula to every subject, from California tire dumps to new buildings in China, Mr. Burtynsky hammers away at the idea of the global proliferation of industrial production, destruction and waste. But he leaves out a lot of information, too.
Johnson missed the point entirely. What he sees as monotmous formula, I see as Burtynsky carrying out his very specific personal vision. In this “monotony” of supposed shock gimmicks is a clear trend of environmental destruction. But the reviewer thinks repetition results in a loss of “representational creditibility.” That’s just confusing. He seems to attribute his reaction of alarm to a rhetorical device rather than a natural reaction to a photo of reality. Is he really that jaded? Maybe he has seen too many Hollywood movies.
Furthermore, he seems completely obvlivious to the fact that the images are large because the scale and scope of these subjects is huge. In fact, that in the Lens Culture audio interview Burtynsky comments on how surprised he was by the extent of manufacturing plants and the landscapes he saw. He says that the camera actually managed to capture very little of the true vastness of the industrial undertakings. His photos are but a small slice of what you see by being there.
To criticize Burtynsky for being high-minded when he is only trying to bring attention to the state of the earth is just… I don’t even know what to call it. Low? Ignorant? Insensitive? I suspect that sort of comment comes out of a reviewer’s own guilt and insecurity with their lack of thought about such issues rather than out of any valid critical point. Oh woe that people might think about the consequences of industrialization on the planet and our future rather than about high art in a vacuum. Some of the criticisms are just confounding, to the point where Johnson almost comes off as intensely idiotic:
Because his pictures give so little sense of the physical limits of their subjects, they also convey little sense of context in broader ways. Those multicolored blocks of compacted scrap metal may look dangerously toxic, but aren’t they going to be recycled, and isn’t that a good thing? That ambiguity is itself another cliché: making bad things appear visually seductive and good things look scary is one of photography’s oldest tricks.
Sometimes Mr. Burtynsky’s photographs are misleading. Among the most arresting pictures are ones showing what appear to be aerial views of rivers colored intensely red and orange, as if they were burning within from some incredibly poisonous waste. Then you realize that these waterways are actually small enough to walk across; and a wall label explains that the color comes from iron oxide waste from a nickel mine, which seems less poisonous than the pictures would lead you to believe.
The recycling Burtynsky refers to is the reuse of precious metal components in discarded electronic devices. Much of the time, these parts must be retreived by hand by people working in unhealthy environments who come into direct contact with those metals. Recycling isn’t a good thing for everybody.
I doubt Burtynsky is trying to make ugly things beautiful. There is some inherent wonder and beauty to the things humans are capable of, the scope of the changes we make to the earth, and the control we have in precise engineering and building.
Then Johnson caps the article off with a nasty, truly nasty, bit of poison that, as far as I’m concerned, says more about his own mediocrity and small-minded bitterness than it does about Burtynsky’s legacy. Not to mention he insults photojournalists everywhere and National Geographic, which are strange targets, to say the least. No, let’s not criticize fashion mags for promoting heroin chic and brainwashing 9 year olds into dieting, let’s jump on photojournalists who generally try to draw attention to humanitarian issues.
Mr. Burtynsky’s photographic vision is closer to that of National Geographic magazine. Though technically impressive and, because of its scale, important-seeming, it offers nothing about photography or about the world that we have not already seen in the works of countless other proficient, globe-trotting photojournalists whose names have faded into the oblivion of artistic mediocrity.
Wow, Ken Johnson, whoever you are, way to convince me to never take anything you write seriously.