18 June 2007

Back to Burtynsky & Politics


Over at State of the Art Miki Johnson (no relation) has a brief review of what seems like a not terribly interesting "documentary" film that is not-quite-about Ed Burtynsky and his work. I've not seen the film, but will get our library to buy it. That said, I find the review interesting because it raises the matter, once again, of in Johnson's words "why he [Burtynsky] hasn't gotten involved in the politics of environmentalism -- even though his large-format prints of humanity's effects on the landscape could easily serve as its posters." Although Johnson praises the visual aspects of the film ("with beautiful long pans and careful attention to composition"), she (I think, she) finds the soundtrack to the film irritating and distracting because it is ominous and seems to be prompting the viewer to find Burtynsky's "enthralling pictures" similarly darkly disconcerting. Johnson seems to think the images simply are disconcerting. And she therefore criticizes the filmmakers for departing from "Burtynsky's diplomatic apolitical" stance.

I find Burtynsky's stance here (and Johnson's endorsement of it) irresponsible. Given his purported concern for the environment, and given the pressures of environmental degradation, how does he justify being diplomatic or apolitical? His images are big and colorful and striking and they could well be "posters" for virtually anything. The notion that they somehow speak for themselves, or that they necessarily prompt viewers to reflectively examine their environmental "footprint" is amazingly naive and complacent.

About Burtynsky, Johnson writes: "With his vast photos he has uncovered the disturbing breadth of our greed and ambition." There are people who might look at the picture reproduced above (lifted from Johnson's post) and see not waste heaps but, at worst, the inevitable by-product of economic progress and, better, an opportunity. Various sorts of entrepreneurs, after all, can collect wire, strip the insulation, and sell the metal as scrap. And are there not more direct indications of 'our greed and ambition?' If you want to get people to reconsider their carbon footprints, why not look at the 'big ticket items' instead of simply the waste to which they contribute only marginally?

"Glowing" © Patti Hallock

For instance, compare the Burtynsky image above to any in this terrific series Nocturnal Suburbia by Patti Hallock.* These images reveal immensely wasteful patterns of resource use - McMansions built in sprawling subdivisions. [1] (Let's leave aside the tacit commentary on family or community life in suburbia.) They are no more preachy than Burtynsky. The composition and use of color and lighting all are, I think, striking. But, this image is no more "political" than Burtynsky's. It might serve as a "poster" for real estate developers, home security firms, lighting systems, etc. - what about those ominous shadows!?! ... And I know lots of folks who would find the images in this series (or Burtynsky's!) not in the least discomfiting.

I have, in the past, recommended this review of Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes by Rebecca Solnit. She has reproduced it in her new book and it gets directly to the heart of what I like about Burtynsky and what I find troubling about him too. Solnit argues persuasively that Burtynsky "approaches" the task/accomplishment of getting viewers to think about the causal structures and processes that generate the startling scenes he depicts. I think he does, but only incompletely. And in order to go further and accomplish that task, he really needs more than pictures. They don't speak for themselves. Someone needs to speak for them too. ... Ed?
__________

* Thanks to Alec Soth for bringing Hallock's very impressive work (as well as that of a couple dozen other photographers) to my attention.

Labels: ,

6 Comments:

Blogger Joerg Colberg said...

While we probably (and easily) agree on politics, I think your complaint about Burtynsky's images is quite flawed.

For example, you say "There are people who might look at the picture reproduced above (lifted from Johnson's post) and see not waste heaps but, at worst, the inevitable by-product of economic progress and, better, an opportunity. Various sorts of entrepreneurs, after all, can collect wire, strip the insulation, and sell the metal as scrap. And are there not more direct indications of 'our greed and ambition?' If you want to get people to reconsider their carbon footprints, why not look at the 'big ticket items' instead of simply the waste to which they contribute only marginally?"

The first problem with this is that it seems to be talking about photos that Burtynsky doesn't take. In addition, little waste piles up, and it's not the big waste that destroys our environment, it's everybody's minute contributions everywhere, any time. You might just throw out your four tires, but if everybody does that it adds up easily, and you're as guilty as the next person of the eventual mess.

The second problem is that even if Burtynsky was preaching about waste there - is that something you really want? - that "entrepreneur" could still easily disagree. The argument about waste wouldn't be any more forceful if Burtynsky made it.

I simply don't see why Burtysnky would have to climb on a soap box and rant about waste and pollution when his photos show just that. Anyone who doesn't believe that there is a problem will not start to believe it if Burtynsky did so. That's just not going to make a difference. Someone like Newt Gingerich, say, who argues that the same free market who brought us global warming will *magically* also solve the problem will not suddenly change their mind because Burtynsky starts ranting on his soap box - in fact, Burtynsky is actually more credible simply because he refuses to join the likes of The Nation, who can be brushed aside as the usual "liberal" crowd.

Plus, in the end, we are all adults, and I don't think we need to be told what we're looking at. It's quite obvious enough.

19 June, 2007 23:02  
Anonymous Nolan Smock said...

"Anyone who doesn't believe that there is a problem will not start to believe it if Burtynsky did so."

I have to agree with Joerg on this one. The only people the discussion will interest are people who are already conscious of these issues. Allowing these images to be associated with didactic rants would be a disservice.

I think, in time, these images will hold the most value when our children's children can look back at them and say, "Wow. Never again."

20 June, 2007 00:40  
Blogger stanco said...

Obviously, it's Burtynsky's prerogative. But can you imagine a Nachtwey, Salgado or Davidson not commenting on the meaning, intention and interpretation of their work?

Perhaps (just perhaps) the role of color may also play a decisive role. No matter how polluted the scenario, the vivid colors of all those beautiful chemicals and toxins can make for quite the spectacular landscape, which more easily translates into fine art sales. No need to muddy the financial waters with environmental clap trap.

Koudelka's Black Triangle photographs are incredibly beautiful- and incredibly stark. But there's no escaping or forgetting that despite their B&W beauty, they're pictures of absolute death and devastation. And I doubt the attention and sales of that particular essay are anywhere near Burtynsky's.

20 June, 2007 01:14  
Anonymous Ed Nixon said...

Burtynsky's projects are large, expensive and require all sorts of access. It stands to reason, for me at least, that the organizing and executing of these projects is easier if he has not labeled himself an 'activist.' He is a successful businessman in his own right, running a large photo production company in Toronto. I'd have to imagine he understands the political and psycho dynamics involved in doing his photography. He may also know that nothing has ever been lost by keeping quiet about one's own work; there are enough of the rest of us to generate words aplenty.

...edN

20 June, 2007 07:08  
Anonymous AricM said...

I have recently been writing as well about how images and art move from the more private, personal creative process towards cultural meaning and a broader social function. Not everyone is equally adept at discussing and critiquing the second part of the process. On the one end of the spectrum is Robert Adams, who is extremely articulate and productive in discussing the issues around his work, and on the other is Gerhart Richter who never says a word about what he does.

To echo Ed Nixon's point, becoming a political activist also has access implications as well. Especially when dealing with sensitive subjects like environmental degradation. I believe as an artist one needs to be as aware as possible how your work has social impact, but it is also not the end of the world to let the philosophers and the wordsmiths explore those for themselves.

20 June, 2007 09:29  
Anonymous Miki Johnson said...

As usual, Joerg has already said pretty much exactly what I would have said...only possibly more eloquently. At a recent opening at the Open Society Institute that Burtynsky was part of, he told me specifically that he doesn't want to become an environmental pundit because that would stop many people from looking at his pictures...the very people who most need to see them.

And just as an aside, Miki, in this case, does happen to be a girl's name (you guessed correctly).

22 June, 2007 16:19  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home