21 July 2006

Burtynsky and Environmentalism

Over at Conscientious Joerg Colberg has posted on Edward Burtynsky and his powerful images of environmental degradation. Joerg is addressing the images collected in Burtynsky's new book China (Steidl, 2005). Like Joerg, I think Burtynsky's work is terrific. It is important to note, however, that Burtynsky himself is extremely reticent to speak about the political dimensions of his work. I have not seen the new collection, but this reticence is clear in the text that accompanies his Manufactured Landscapes (Yale UP) from which I have lifted this image. ["Nickel Tailings No. 36, Sudbury Ontario, 1996," © Edward Burtynsky.] If you are interested in an insightful critical commentary on Burtynsky I recommend Rebecca Solnit's essay "Creative Destruction" which appeared in The Nation (1 September 2003). That said, I think it is important to ask what relationship might exist between images and verbal accounts of environmental destruction - or indeed of other distinctly political problems.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't see why Burtynsky would have to talk a lot about what his works means or implies. It's really there, for all to see.

21 July, 2006 11:27  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I actually think the notion that pictures speak for themselves is naive. This is among the places where we disagreee (I seem to recall a post of yours a short time ago about text being expendable or beside the point generally in photographic contexts.) And the problem is not just that EB is reticent, but that he demurs when anyone suggests that his work has any political implications.

What are the "obvious" implications of Burtynsky's images? Are they an indictment of, say mining gernerally, or specific practices? Or do they simply remind us that there are necessary by-products of our extractive processes that are (because necessary) not even regrettable? Those are two possibilities, there surely are others.

21 July, 2006 12:02  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To connect this thread to another of your posts - the photograph you selected here seems as though it might potentially be described as if not beautiful, at least attractive? Especially if no context were provided. Does this make political commentary and written/verbal explanation more important?

21 July, 2006 13:35  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I think you are right. Actually, one of the things I find interesting about Burtynsky is that his work is often quite stunning. I recommend his shots of quarries too in that regard. And so I have wondered whether those who object to the beautification of human suffering (in, say, photographs by Salgado or Nachtwey) would object too to the way Burtynsky's images "beautify" of environmental degradation.

21 July, 2006 15:28  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though it is not strictly photography, I think you would like a new project which aims to make statistic from world organizations easily understandable and intersting. It is called gapminder - you can find it here http://www.gapminder.org/ - there is a small link that will take you straight to the graphs. In addition there is a great video explaiining the project that contrasts it to other photographic visual information sources here
the project and the video about it are very interesting

22 July, 2006 20:43  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

It is funny, I began to get "seriously" interested in photography in part as a means of communicating about aggregate phenomena (war, migraiton, famine, etc.). It turns out that that is not among the more conventional uses of the technology. INstead the impetus is to focus on individuals. So I will gladly take your suggestion. Thanks very much.

22 July, 2006 21:10  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"To connect this thread to another of your posts - the photograph you selected here seems as though it might potentially be described as if not beautiful, at least attractive? Especially if no context were provided. Does this make political commentary and written/verbal explanation more important?"

To take your idea even further, perhaps it is not the image of the destruction that we find beautiful, but the destruction itself. There is a book called War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, which argues something along those lines. Hedges, having spent many years as a foreign correspondent, covering some of the most notorious tragedies of the past 50 years, makes an intriguing, and original claim, that so-called victims of war actually do not see themselves as victims at all; in fact, he says, people who have endured the sufferings of war, nostalgically reminisce on those dark times, as times filled with great passion, simplicity, and love.

Hedges argument is certainly not what we are accustomed to hearing in a "progressive, PC" society. But maybe our visceral fascination with images of death, war, and destruction are a sign of a bored, decaying society, yearning for a purpose.

23 July, 2006 10:27  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, then I'm naive. That's fine with me. I find it a bit tedious to add pages and pages of endless descriptions and of theorizing about things which are painfully obvious - that's one of those things that I actually don't like about the American left. You don't have to beat a dead horse - it's dead already. There is very little - if any - value added by beating it.

As for Burtynsky's images I think they can well stand on their own and don't need a lot of extra text - and to say that they're not really that good because Burtynsky supposedly refuses to add another 50 pages to his books with commentary is an odd commentary about a photographer. Should we expect from Gregory Crewdson, say, the same? Should we expect pages and pages of sociological commentary about alienation and/or suburbia? Or what about Larry Sultan's shots of pornography movie shots?

The thing that I like about good fine-art photography is that it stirs/moves something in you. If I want photojournalism (which I rarely am interested in) I pick that. Fine-art photography is not the same as photojournalism. And criticizing fine-art photographers for not behaving like photojournalists misses the point.

25 July, 2006 21:28  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Jeorg: I guess I don't find the art-documentary-photojournalism (it seems that it is not simply a dichotomy) distinction terribly helpful. It is a big problem in discussions of photography generally and I hope to post some (more or lessw coherent) thoughts on it soon. That said, it is not clear where you might accurately place Burtynsky even if you do accept some sort of distinction between those enterprises. And in any case, if photography is meant to start discussion I am unsure why we cannot expect the makers of images to take part.

26 July, 2006 10:34  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the art-documentary-photojournalism distinctions to be traceable back to the photograph's role in the marketplace and in distribution, rather than in intrinsic distinctions in the photographs themselves. To simply take photographs on their own would mean to leave behind those marketplace distinctions and to let each image do it's own thing.

To impose the art-documentary-photojournalism categories on the images is to immediately depart from the position that would allow each body of work to stand on its own and speak only for itself. This is where the "art" distinction of photography is particularly problematic because in practice it is a distinction mostly of where the images are sold.

How could representing environmental disaster not have political implications? Because the photographs exist in an economy and reference an event with political ramifications, they are by definition in a political context. I would argue that it is critical for the creator to comment on and explore this.

To do so invites critique of the economy within which the photograph operates, and that is a tricky thing for someone who makes their living inside of that economy to tackle.

14 June, 2007 11:54  

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