Sunday, 17 June 2012

Edward Burtynsky at The Photographers Gallery

This post is also shown with images in my hard copy Learning Journal under this date.

I have just visited the Edward Burtynsky ‘Oil’ exhibition at The Photographers Gallery in London.  The essence of Burtynsky is his large, several metres wide, images which portray the environmental devastation created by man as industrialisation inexorably expands.  I first came across his work last year when SkyArts screened Jennifer Baichwal’s ‘Manufactured Landscapes’ film in which she followed Burtynsky’s visit to China to photograph the impact of their massive industrial revolution on the environment.  He covered a number of areas such as the Three Gorges Dam and also how recycling, mining and massive factories have impacted on the world.  The Burtynsky website allows the opening of some large images, so it is possible to gain an idea of the impact that the full sized prints can actually have.

Burtynsky himself has said, 'I’m always interested in how humans shape the landscape. All my work is really about the pristine landscape being pushed back as a result of the expanding human footprint.''  This really sums up the essence of all his work, both in the ‘Oil’ exhibition and beyond, and all his photographs make a huge visual impact both because of their large physical size in the exhibition and in terms of the material he has captured, and both strongly make his point about man’s impact on the environment.

The key design elements that made the biggest impression on me were his strong use of diagonals, implied triangles, pattern and rhythm which are features which occur frequently in his work.  Another recurrent theme is his choice of the same colour for the individual elements in some of his images (especially in ‘Manufactured Landscapes’) where the Chinese workers in their uniform company overalls dominate the images.  This is particularly striking in “Manufacturing #17, Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, 2005” (link) where the pink coveralls of the chicken choppers make a remarkable, and somehow rather depressing, image.  The ship breaking series from Bangladesh are remarkable photographs with the massive sections of ships that have been cut up looking almost like monuments in a desert landscape – not unlike Monument Valley in the USA in some ways.  Shipbreaking # 27, With Cutter, Chittagong, Bangladesh 2001” is a particularly good example of this (link).

Burtynsky created a feeling of some conflict for me when I looked at his images.  They have a remarkable beauty to them which sits somewhat uncomfortably with the environmental devastation and social depression that they actually portray, although I am sure that is what makes them so successful.
The ‘Oil’ exhibition is on at the London Photography Gallery until July 1st.

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