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The Interview

How A Former Janitor Became A Photographic Great

The early struggles of Photo London Master of Photography Mr Edward Burtynsky that set up his later success

  • “Highland Valley #8”, Teck Cominco, Open Pit Copper Mine, Logan Lake, British Columbia, Canada, 2008. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Flowers. Below: Mr Edward Burtynsky. Photograph by Ms Birgit Kleber, courtesy of the office of Mr Edward Burtynsky

This week, Mr Edward Burtynsky will fly to London to be garlanded as Photo London’s Master of Photography. At the fair, he will exhibit, for the first time, images from his Anthropocene project, a sprawling, years-in-the-making, multinational blockbuster of a photography show, with a bolt-on a feature film and “augmented-reality experience” that explores the impact humans are having on the earth.

The Canadian curator Mr Marc Mayer calls them “exquisite pictures of ugliness”. For decades, Mr Burtynsky has documented some of the most damaged places on the planet, such as the floating slum of Makoko in Lagos, the graveyard of ship hulks in Bangladesh and the flattened jungles of Borneo. He uses a precision large-format camera to create impossibly detailed photographs. They are, Mr Mayer says, “a dystopian sublime”, inarguable, highly aesthetic evidence of the havoc our species is wreaking on the natural world.

Back home in Toronto, a team of seven works for Mr Burtynsky full time. Down the road, Image Works, the processing lab he opened in his early thirties, now employs more than 30 people. When he shot recently in Nigeria, the State Security Service was assigned for his protection and, while there, he hired a helicopter for $2 for every second in the air. If you want to own one of his images of the Niger Delta, or, for that matter, any of his images, then you’re looking at paying many tens of thousands.

  • “Oil Bunkering #2”, Niger Delta, Nigeria, 2016. © Mr Edward Burtynsky, courtesy of Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Flowers Gallery, London

It’s fair to say, then, that Mr Burtynsky has made it. Yet it hasn’t been easy. Even as he entered his thirties, Mr Burtynsky’s relationship with photography was precarious to say the least. He loved the medium, but couldn’t work out how to make a living from it. He didn’t know what to photograph, and his clients regularly asked him to work for free. For many years, his personal work had to be assigned to a two-week summer holiday.

Mr Burtynsky, 63, was born Mr Taras Buratynsky to a large family of Ukranian immigrants in St Catherine’s, a suburban, coastal town not far from Toronto. He spent much of his childhood speaking his parents’ native language at home and struggling with English at school. His father, a disciplinarian with an interest in painting, worked on the production line at the local General Motors plant and, although he inspired his son’s early interest in photography and gave him his first camera, the two would often “butt heads”.

When Mr Burtynsky was barely 12, his father was diagnosed with cancer, the result, Mr Burtynsky later realised, of being exposed to contaminants at work. His father lived in remission, but, by the time Mr Burtynsky was 15, it was clear the illness was terminal. His death meant the family lost its breadwinner and Mr Burtynsky had to take on blue-collar work to help support his mother and younger siblings. He worked as a janitor and then, like his father, on the production line for the car industry. It was a steady job. One day, he might be able to become a manager. His mother pushed him to accept it, but he resisted. Privately, he had made the decision to study art.

The next decade of Mr Burtynsky’s life assumed something of a holding pattern. “I was constantly trying to keep it all together,” he says. He started to attend photography night classes in Toronto, sitting quietly at the back, then travelling home and getting up for work the next day. Canada is an industrial economy that is rich in natural resources. There were unimaginably massive infrastructure projects deep in the Ontarian wilderness. Whenever Mr Burtynsky was stuck for money, he would skip his classes and travel into the wilderness to work in the mines there.

“Travelling into Ontario, it was as remote as I’ve ever seen,” he says. “Literally no other humans. Then getting there and seeing the pits. I remember the first time I saw a truck carrying a 200-ton load. It had tyres 10ft high. It was a land of the giants, everything oversized. I remember them blasting a side of the pit and the whole earth seemed to shake.

“I witnessed these places, but I never thought they would become a photographic subject. But being out there in the wilderness with the open sky and your wits, I bonded with the land. And then seeing the extent to which we were imposing ourselves on nature, I realised these landscapes were extensions of us.”

Mr Burtynsky was forming a philosophy that has shaped his life’s work. “I started to no longer see the world as delineated by countries with borders or language,” he says. “But as 6.5 billion humans living off a precariously balanced, finite planet.” 

  • “Saw Mills #1”, Lagos, Nigeria, 2016. © Mr Edward Burtynsky, courtesy of Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Flowers Gallery, London

It took him another few years to formulate how to capture such a thing. He recalls learning of an early Mr August Sander photograph of an iron ore mine. The image had an abstracted, geometric quality, like a Mr Georges Braque painting. He decided to spend his time and money photographing such places, seeing in them both a distinct and unique aesthetic pull – and a potent social message. “It’s a tough thing to trust your instinct,” he says. “It’s often a very small voice drowned out in a busy world. But I decided to just jump in with both feet, and the world started to change for me.”

Mr Burtynsky characterises the human race as “a predator species run amok” and, having travelled all over the world to capture our relationship with the planet, knows what he’s talking about. In one series of pictures, he attempts to portray the sheer scale of China’s industrial revolution. “Near Shanghai, we once drove for four hours across landscapes that used to be forest and didn’t see a single bird,” he says. In another, he focused on the manufactured landscapes that provide us with our drinking water, the vast dams and reservoirs and quarry-like systems of the developed and developing world. “It’s our most valuable resource,” he says. “But our relationship to water is increasingly stressed.”

Photo London will now be the starting point for Anthropocene, a series named after the current geological epoch, which documents the changes humanity has exerted on the earth’s eco-system. In the series, Mr Burtynsky contrasts his aerial landscapes, shot from a helicopter, with state-of-the-art augmented images – an elephant tusk and rhino horn burn in Kenya, the “terraforming” of the Mumbai cityscape, the noxious, oil-spoilt rivers of the Niger Delta, the pastel colours of the salt pans in Gujarat, northern India. But there are nods to his own experiences as well – an open-cast copper mine in British Columbia, Canada, captured to look like a Mr MC Escher lithograph.

“We’re exchanging the natural world with our world,” Mr Burtynsky says. “Whatever we take, we always lose something too. I see the arc of my work as a lament for loss.”

Photo London takes place at Somerset House, London, from 17 to 20 May 2018. Mr  Burtynsky will be speaking as part of the Photo London talks programme on 17 May at 5.30pm

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