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?
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.  (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.