Edward Burtynsky in conversation with Walter Seidl

Walter Seidl: Talking about photography in the 1970s, this was the decade when the medium itself was elevated into the realm of art, and when photography entered museum spaces. 1975 saw the exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, which marked a milestone for American landscape photography. How has this influenced you and how do you see your work within this context?  

Edward Burtynsky: I started studying photography in 1976, and was always interested in industry. At the age of 17 I got my first big factory job in a frame plant, having to build frames for trucks, which was a very heavy job in terms of physical stress. It was easy to get hired there because most people worked two days and quit. I managed to work there seven months. Having worked in factories, I had seen many of them and naturally looked around all the factories in St. Catharines where I was born. Moreover, I was interested in ruins, and there are many in the area, along the Welland canal, which goes from my hometown to Lake Erie. In 1976, my first assignment was to document evidence of man. To me ruins have this element that something happened in a place, which was left there—leaving traces of history which is no longer present. Thereafter I explored ruins in Savannah, Georgia. I was also interested in pure landscape, but it would have been too much of a cliché to work in the genre of pictorial landscape. In 1981, I came across a mining area which I photographed. In was in this mining town in Pennsylvania where the landscape had clearly been changed, and I thought that this would be more true to my time than the idea of the pristine landscape. I was also interested in Carleton Watkins Yosemite photographs of the big mammoth plates. Their beauty had aroused interest in president Lincoln to turn this area into a National Park in 1864. This was where photography had a big social impact to preserve nature.
Then I wanted to get into mining in Canada, Inco was the biggest mining company there. Through the CEO I got connected to a resident geologist, who knew all the rocks, looking at the core samples. This work tweaked my interest in terms of how miners look at the landscape and how geologists look at the landscape and its history in terms of the urban and industrial needs for these materials, to build cars, make stainless steel etc. Mining was a consequence of human expansion and of technological growth. Now we are building cars, jets, and bridges. We need more and more of this material. Hence, these mines were an inevitable consequence. In my photography, I never went at them in an accusatory position. When people asked me why I was interested in them I would say that we all work with these materials and use them every day. As an artist, I mediate between these landscapes where those materials come from and urban centers, where the largest proportion of these materials are used. I wouldn’t go there and single people out as the bad miners. I want my work to be rather revelatory. It depends on whether you are interested in the image having a force of its own.

WS: So you mainly used a 4 x 5 inch camera at the beginning?

EB: Yes, and in the 1990s I used an 8 x 10, but it would have been too expensive in the 80s to use that in color. Today, the generation of digital natives who have never shot on analog film, are taking pictures way too soon.

WS: You started at a time, when you exactly had to get prepared for every single shot.

EB: Yes, and you had to be committed to it. Even in the 90s, when I started to shoot 8 x 10, a box of ten sheets cost 100 dollars. In the end, after processing, the final image would come up to 200 dollars. You really had to think of what you did and be 100% sure. Today I have a 100 megapixel Hasselblad camera, but I don’t have the same ritual which I would have had with an 8 x 10. I shoot way more than I would have. In former times, it often took me three days to finally take a picture or not even one with all those math calculations and the commitment to one single photograph. However, shooting 8 x 10 was still easy compared to former times. In this case, I admire Samuel Bourne, who was a fascinating British photographer of the 19th century working in India, and who wrote extensive diary entries about taking his pictures.

WS: How did you expand your themes from mining to the sea and to water as represented at the Kunst Haus Wien, and also to different global areas and man-altered landscapes?

EB: When I worked on mines, I also did this series on homesteads, and on rail cuts, which was in 1983. In that year, I also applied for a grant, which was about 20,000 dollars at the time, which was a really good grant for an artist. I had a Volvo station wagon, in which I was sleeping, and a tent. Once a week a rent a hotel room. I traveled throughout the whole of North America, taking pictures, writing, thinking. My ideas that I wanted to be part of a life’s work were how we use nature and what our relationship to it would be, also how we see ourselves outside of nature. I had the belief that we are part of it but separated from it at the same time. In this respect, the First Nations’ idea that they were part of the natural order, which is also what the Europeans who came to Canada thought, is an interesting perspective. Somehow, I had more of an affinity to their point of view than to that of the Europeans.
In 1990, I started to shoot quarries, places where we remove stone in a block and leave a residual footprint in a landscape, which is more structured and less random. In 1993, one of the CEOs of a quarry in Vermont said if you like quarries, you should go to Italy to the Cararra quarry. In my photo lab, which I opened in 1985, I had a customer who was Italian, who had left Milan and wanted to move to Toronto. He knew a great assistant from a family coming from Pisa, Silvio, with whom I got in touch. I thought photographing in Italy would be like working with the company Rock of Ages, which owned all the quarries in Vermont, and through which I got the permission to shoot at all the quarries. However, we went from quarry to quarry and after having passed around 50, we got a permission to shoot in one quarry. There were about 150 different companies. Silvio had to get in touch with each responsible person on site, while I was looking around for shooting options, mostly there were no ideal ones, which in the end made us visit all 150 quarries. This was my first trip abroad, which gave me great confidence to work abroad with a fixer, somebody who knows how to play the game, knows the language and also what I need.
A few years later I went to Bangladesh, India, China, Spain…

WS: And when did you start to change positions, from shooting on the ground to lifting your camera up into the air and shoot from different angles and perspectives?

EB: The first time I rented a helicopter was in 2003, but I was shooting with a 4 x 5 camera. It was a waste of film and I was always worried, but it worked. Then I rented a helicopter in 2005 in L.A., and later in Tucson, but I also rented bucket lifts, which would give me 80 feet above ground. Already in 1983, I thought that all I would need is a bucket lift because of all the trees being in the way. In 2010, drones were just about to be launched. I worked with Tabb Firchau, co-founder of Freefly Systems for camera stabilizers, who is now a multi-millionaire. In the video in the exhibition in Vienna, when you see me using a single blade stabilizer, you can see him helping me on the shoot, which he would of course not do any longer. At that time, he was still out there to help and see what photographers needed. As the versions after the single blade didn’t work out well, he finally came up with the 8-blade version. To take the pictures, we had a little video camera with a remote trigger and a little video camera on my Hasselblad screen. From the ground, I could compose, direct and freeze the helicopter, which worked like an extended tripod up high. These were my first important aerial shoots with the Hasselblad camera. Sometimes, when the subject is two hours away, you had to rent a truck to get out there, but now you can rent a Cessna to fly to the subject and back, which saves you time. It’s tricky though to shoot out of a Cessna, but I’ve managed how to communicate with the pilots in order to do so.

WS: What are your ideas when it comes to composition? The photos from the ground often have a clear-cut geometric composition, while many aerial shots are more of a painterly gestalt and are sometimes hard to perceive as photographs.

EB: I was always interested in the moment when the image had an opportunity for some transcendence, from a banal record of a place to an interesting interpretation of that place which is visually intriguing. I was interested in the image as a force and I know that I was running counter many conceptual practices of that time in being self-referential in terms of what an artistic image is. Though following the post-modern discourse, I was also following my instincts and didn’t want to give up the ability of the image to have a narrative aspect to it. Many artists like Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson were artificially creating their sets but made you feel that there were moments that happened naturally. The landscape I was interested in had such an other-worldliness, the dimensions were always in there, revealing the scale we are operating in now. For me, this was a worthy approach. I love referencing to Abstract Expressionism and the flattening all-overness. The work of the late 70s and early 80s did foreshadow the abstraction I was interested in. Thus, I became interested in the painterly moment of photography.

WS: Many photographs in the exhibition look like paintings, but you don’t do much digital alteration, do you?

EB: Not really, I just try to bring them back to the color tone that is in the space, and not to oversaturate them. Especially the aerial photos, if they had been done with conventional film, it wouldn’t have worked because I couldn’t have gotten the contrast. However, if it’s too hazy while shooting, you also cannot get the contrast without getting too much grain. In the Monegros - Dryland Farming series, there was too much haze. When I tried to do the prints in Toronto, I realized that they didn’t work out, so I called the pilot and said that I had to go back two weeks later and redo that series. I don’t add or subtract things to the picture. Sometimes I have kept thinking that I should, but I try stay true to my discipline.

WS: How do you do the research on the places you want to photograph, because the pictures in your Vienna exhibition on the topic of water have been taken in all five continents?

EB: It was in about 2008 when I was thinking and reading about how to go on, about which things I want to talk about that I hadn’t talked about before visually. I started to think about the water we don’t see, such as aquifer, and I wanted to talk about farming, irrigation etc. Water that is accessible to humans is 1 % of surface water, from lakes and rivers, 1 % comes from the aquifer, and another percent is in the ice of different glaciers. To go from an idea to the specific is the challenge. If I get interested in copper mines, I would be researching about where the biggest copper mine is and start from there, or where the biggest aquifer is, which is Ogallala aquifer, about which I heard in the past. They said that there were 10 Lake Eries contained underground. All the pivot irrigation was run from that water. So I chose a Cessna and went there, trying to do more geometric pictures and work on the circles. With digital technology, I can also stitch things together and can fix them on Photoshop. Thus, I began with a whole series on the pivot irrigation circles.  However, I wasn’t interested in going into the oceans, where most of the water is.
Going back to your original question about composition, the aerial view and the flattening of space allowed me to flatten the space even more, but I was always interested in not going too high in order not to completely lose the relationship of scale. I liked that painterly abstraction because I did start with painting before I started to photograph. My dad was an amateur painter, so I took drawing and painting classes and he taught me how to paint. I was painting landscape with oil when I was seven. Then I got a camera when I was eleven and thought that this was way better and faster. In one fraction of a second, I got my landscape. This was a more updated tool working at the speed of a young kid. However, if you work with a 4 x 5 or 8 x 10 camera and it takes three days to take a photograph, you sometimes face the same dilemma a painter faces. Like the empty canvas, the blank sheet of film has to get filled. When we go into landscapes, they are fully chaotic and full of details. And to see those details, I really had to get into them with my camera and wait for something to happen. I had to spend much time in this chaos and wait for the right moment. This meant training my eye.

WS: What would be the next step in your work since you also once mentioned that you would like to go into 3-D?

EB: I’ve worked for example on elephant tusks in Nairobi, where they burnt a hundred and ten tons in a one night event in 2016. Kenya had all this ivory which was stored and they were protecting people from stealing it. Thus, they were about to burn it in eleven piles, tusks of eleven thousand elephants. I took over 2000 pictures of the biggest pile and then used a software to turn it into a 3-dimensional image. Then I used a 3-D color printer in order to experience the image virtually. While still using a digital camera, it became interesting to me to use the third dimension. To speak with the Anthropocene, all of this is human, people hunting for tusks that are sold. We are precipitating the extinction of elephants in order to sell tusks. I still see photography at the basis for what I consider photo-grammature to read all the textures. Thus, we have arrived in the renaissance of the image.

Vienna, March 22, 2017