Search Type

Secondary Programs: Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky, Shipyard #7, Qili Port, Zhejiang Province, China, 2005, Dye-coupler print
Gift of the artist, 2006 (49-014.36)


Born in St. Catharines, Ontario in 1955, Edward Burtynsky formed an early interest in photography. He helped his father to set up a darkroom, and together they learned about taking and developing pictures. He studied graphic arts at Niagara College and then photography at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University). Childhood camping trips sparked his interest in the landscape, and the experience of seeing a huge mining area as an adult helped to define his approach: the impact of industry on the land is a theme that he has pursued through various series to the present.

Burtynsky uses a view camera, a large-format camera whose negatives usually measure 4" x 5". He sets up the camera on a tripod and views the scene on a glass screen, his head covered by a black cloth, before shooting. This methodical approach allows him to slow down and carefully study what he sees; the resulting prints have great clarity of detail, even for panoramic landscapes.

Edward Burtynsky is an award-winning photographer whose work is represented in many major collections. He donated 47 prints to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in 2006.

Teaching About Photography and the Environment

Download Teaching About Photography and the Environment Information Package (.pdf ) 173 KB

Image Gallery

The ten images shown here, all from the Art Centre's collection, indicate some of the different series that Edward Burtynsky has produced as he expanded his practice from the mines of North America to the effects of industry in Asia.

Nickel Tailings #33, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996 dye-coupler print.
Gift of the artist, 2006

Tailings are the waste produced in mining and smelting ore. Turned red by the oxidized iron, the water flows across the landscape, which is devoid of foliage due to the gases released by the smelting process. This image captures the duality of much of Burtynsky's work: it is a visually appealing form that also makes us, as we apprehend the content, question the impact of our consumption of natural resources.

Densified Scrap Metal #3b, Hamilton, Ontario, 1997 dye-coupler print.
Gift of the artist, 2006

From the natural resource mines of Northern Ontario, Burtynsky turned his attention to what he called "Urban Mines," the accumulation of discarded objects found in recycling centres near cities. Metal drawn from the earth travels the path of fabrication and consumption, to be densified, melted and used again.

Burtynsky's point of view has changed from the panoramic perspective of the Tailings series to a close-viewof piles of oil drums, scrap metal, oil filters, electronic parts, or tires. In this work, the densified metal forms a grid of colour, shape and texture that is almost abstract, and potentially endless.

Makrana Quarries #7, Rajasthan, India, 2000 dye-coupler print.
Gift of the artist, 2006

As opposed to much North American industrial extraction dating from the 19th century, the quarrying of stone is hundreds of years old. Michelangelo, the great Renaissance sculptor, used marble taken from one of the famous quarries at Carrara, Italy, for his sculpture of David. While that actual site has closed down, Burtynsky has photographed other quarries in Carrara, as well as in Vermont, India and China. India has long used marble as an architectural material: Makrana white marble was used in the famous Taj Mahal. With the high horizon line, we appear to be in the quarry, dwarfed by its size and contemplating the amount of stone that has been extracted. Signs of human activity, such as the equipment and tiny worker on the lower left, attest to the grand scale of nature but also the power of our technology to alter the land.

Shipbreaking #14, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000 dye-coupler print.
Gift of the artist, 2006

Where do old tankers and freighters go when they are no longer useful? From the Western ports where they unloaded most of their cargo, they now end up on the beaches of Bangladesh, in south Asia. The towering metal structures are just fragments of these huge ships, which are severed through the manual labour of many men such as those shown here. Undoubtedly the work is dangerous, yet we don't see the basic equipment given to Canadian workers, such as hard hats and safety shoes.

Chittagong is in south-east Bangladesh, a poor country with a population of over 153,000,000. The labourers are paid from US$1 to $2 per day, depending on their skill.

Oil Fields #11, McKittrick, California, 2002 dye-coupler print.
Gift of the artist, 2006

Burtynsky's series of oil fields and oil refineries seek to trace the path of this crucial substance from its point of extraction to its processing for our use. McKittrick, a small town in southern California, is the centre of a large oil-producing region. In Canada, we might think of our most famous oil fields, the Tar Sands of northern Alberta, which Burtynsky has also photographed.

California's image as a tourist destination contrasts with this industrial perspective, where the network of drilling machines and pipes criss-crosses the desert into the far distance.

Highway #1, Intersection 105 & 110, Los Angeles, California, 2003 dye-coupler print.
Gift of the artist, 2006

Taken from a helicopter, this image relates to the oil fields series: it shows the dominance of the car, especially in a densely populated and developed area like Los Angeles. Burtynsky’s camera catches both the awe-inspiring kilometers of highway that traverse the modern city, and the abstract complex pattern they create.

Manufacturing #11, Youngor Textiles, Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, China, 2005 dye-coupler print.
Gift of the artist, 2006

Since 2002, Burtynsky has made several trips to China, a manufacturing superpower as a result of economic re-structuring. This series captures several of Burtynsky’s on-going themes: dramatic transformation of the land through technology, re-cycling, and quarries. A new element is the series of interior shots of workers in these factories, where huge spaces offer almost as vast a sweep as do Burtynsky’s landscapes.

Many of the clothes bought by Canadians are made in China, by workers such as these. They seem focused on a quick lunch break, oblivious to the photographer stationed above to capture the cafeteria’s expanse. The red-sweatered woman, apparently talking on a cell phone, draws us in and piques our curiosity about the nature of these people’s lives.

Urban Renewal #6, Apartment Complex, JiangjunAo, Hong Kong, China, 2004 dye-coupler print.
Gift of the artist, 2006

This image of a Hong Kong apartment complex employs a close viewpoint that makes us wonder where the buildings end. As the need for labour in urban factories draws people from their rural homes, China’s already crowded cities have to absorb the new residents.

China Recycling #15, Cankun Aluminum, Xiamen City, Fujian Province, China, 2005 dye-coupler print.
Gift of the artist, 2006

In his images of North American recycling yards, no humans appear, and we assume the densified metal has been compacted by machinery. In this image of recycling in China, colourfully-clothed workers squat to sift through discarded metal for aluminum. As in his shots of textile workers, Burtynsky shows us how China’s huge population supports its rising economy.

Feng Jie #3, Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, China, 2002 dye-coupler print.
Gift of the artist, 2006

The Three Gorges Dam project, along the Yangtze River, is the largest engineering endeavor in the world. Begun in 1993, it was completed in 2009, when a reservoir, submerging 632 square kilometers of land, aims to generate 18,000 megawatts of electricity. With rare access achieved through careful preparation, Burtynsky travelled to several cities intended for destruction before the land was flooded. He captured the city of Feng Jie in September 2002, at the start of its demise, and then again in November, when this photograph was taken. The recycling theme that has run through his work appears again here, as these workers, possibly the displaced residents, are salvaging bricks and rebar from the rubble.

This online resource on Edward Burtynsky was created by:
Jo-Anne Lachapelle-Beyak, Public Programs Assistant, and Pat Sullivan, Public Programs Manager
Consultant: Alan Wilkinson, Adjunct Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Queen's University. Its preparation was supported by the Ontario Ministry of Education and Ministry of Culture through the Arts Education Partnership Initiative administered by the Ontario Arts Foundation. We are grateful to the following, whose contributions to the Arts Education Partnership Initiative made this program possible: J. P. Bickell Foundation, Jeri and Dolf Harmsen, The Lloyd Carr-Harris Foundation, Nathan Kaufman, Kincore Holdings Limited, Justin & Elisabeth Lang Foundation, and a donor through the Community Foundation of Greater Kingston.