3: Landscape as Political Text 5: Resolution Inspiration

Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky, OC (born February 22, 1955) is a Canadian photographer and artist known for his large-format photographs of industrial landscapes. Burtynsky’s most famous photographs are sweeping views of landscapes altered by industry: mine tailings, quarries, scrap piles. The grand, awe-inspiring beauty of his images is often in tension with the compromised environments they depict.

Exploring the Residual Landscape

Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.

These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.

Ed Burtynsky website

Oil  2009

His series Oil (2009) resolves an epiphany he had in 1997, when he realised just how tightly connected all of our global activity was to petrol and its raw material – oil.

The monograph is divided into three sections:

  • images of extraction and refinement;
  • the consumption of oil and motor culture;
  •  abandoned ‘oilfields run dry’ and motor vehicles of all descriptions resigned to huge scrap heaps.

The images within Oil  evoke a terrifying sense of the sublime. It is within the third section that the images have their most potent effect, for instance seemingly endless rows of impotent, rusting fighter jets in Arizona, or a channel cutting through a canyon of stacked worn car tyres in California. Some of the most striking images are those made at the Chittagong ship breakers in Bangladesh. The proportions of the structures that the workers pick apart, almost by hand, are awesome, and just as affecting are the horrendous conditions in which they work. Although not overtly critical in any explicitly rhetorical sense (i.e. like Kennard’s montages), it is impossible to read Burtynsky’s position as anything but one of grave concern for our consumption of this valuable substance.

Some images in Burtynsky’s Oil can be interpreted from different perspectives: great stacks of compressed oil drums or bits of car parts might speak of excess and consumption but, whilst they refer to manufacturing in a past tense, these are also the raw materials for current industries, ready to be melted down and turned into new things.


He has made several excursions to China to photograph that country’s industrial emergence, and construction of one of the world’s largest engineering projects, the Three Gorges Dam.

Burtynsky discussing his work made in China

Other work


Burtynsky was born in St. Catharines, Ontario. His parents had immigrated to Canada in 1951 from Ukraine and his father found work on the production line at the local General Motors plant. Burtynsky recalls playing by theWelland Canal and watching ships pass through the locks. When he was 11, his father purchased a darkroom, including cameras and instruction manuals, from a widow whose late husband practiced amateur photography.With his father, Burtynsky learned how to make black-and-white photographic prints and together with his older sister established a small business taking portraits at the local Ukrainian center. In the early ’70s, Burtynsky found work in printing and he started night classes in photography, later enrolling at the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.

From the mid-1970s to early 1980s, Burtynsky formally studied graphic arts and photography. He obtained a diploma in graphic arts from Niagara College in Welland, Ontario, in 1976, and a BAA in Photographic Arts (Media Studies Program) from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, Ontario, in 1982.

His early influences include Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eadweard Muybridge, and Carleton Watkins, whose prints he saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early 1980s. Another group whose body of work shares similar themes and photographic approaches to Burtynsky’s work are the photographers who were involved in the exhibition New Topographics.


Photographic series

  • 1983 – 1985 Breaking Ground: Mines, Railcuts and Homesteads, Canada, USA
  • 1991 – 1992 Vermont Quarries, USA
  • 1997 – 1999 Urban Mines: Metal Recycling, Canada Tire Piles, USA
  • 1993 – Carrara Quarries, Italy
  • 1995 – 1996 Tailings, Canada
  • 1999 – 2010 Oil Canada, China, Azerbaijan, USA
  • 2000 – Makrana Quarries, India
  • 2000 – 2001 Shipbreaking, Bangladesh
  • 2004 – 2006 China
  • 2006 – Iberia Quarries, Portugal
  • 2007 – Australian Mines, Western Australia
  • 2009 – 2013 Water Canada, USA, Mexico, Europe, Asia, Iceland, India

Video: Manufactured Landscapes

In 2006, Burtynsky was the subject of the documentary film, Manufactured Landscapes, that was shown at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.

Video: Watermark

Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal, who was his director on the 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes, are co-directors of the 2013 documentary film, Watermark. The film is part of his five-year project Water focusing on the way water is used and managed.



Most of Burtynsky’s exhibited photography (pre 2007) was taken with a large format field camera on large 4×5-inch sheet film and developed into high-resolution, large-dimension prints of various sizes and editions ranging from 18 x 22 inches to 60 x 80 inches. He often positions himself at high-vantage points over the landscape using elevated platforms, the natural topography, and more currently helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Burtynsky describes the act of taking a photograph in terms of “The Contemplated Moment”, evoking and in contrast to, “The Decisive Moment” of Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 2007 he began using a high-resolution digital camera.

The Long Now Foundation

In July 2008 Burtynsky delivered a seminar for the Long Now Foundation entitled “The 10,000 year Gallery”. The foundation promotes very long-term thinking and is managing various projects including the Clock of the Long Now, which is a clock designed to run for 10,000 years. Burtynsky was invited by clock designer Danny Hillis to contribute to the Long Now project, and Burtynsky proposed a gallery to accompany the clock. In his seminar, he suggested that a gallery of photographs which captured the essence of their time, like the cave paintings at Lascaux, could be curated annually and then taken down and stored. He outlined his research into a carbon-transfer process for printing photographs that would use inert stone pigments suspended in a hardened gelatine colloid and printed onto thick watercolour paper. He believes that these photographs would persist over the 10,000 year time-frame when stored away from moisture.


3: Landscape as Political Text

James Morris

In Wales, particularly South Wales, the idea of ‘post-industry’ is poignant in the light of the well-documented, widespread decline in industrial activity in recent decades.

In A Landscape of Wales (2010), James Morris explores the diverse landscape of the country, including the Gothic-looking remains of slate quarries and other sublime-inspiring features. Most interestingly, Morris looks at how the tourism and heritage industries, which continue to play a major part in the Welsh economy, relate to the landscape. Morris provides an excellent example of the inextricable link between topography and industry, which have in turn shaped the identity of a place and its people.  (Alexander course text p105)

See Google Images

See more from this series at:   (Flash-based site)

3: Landscape as Political Text

John Davies

John Davies website

See more of Davies’s work

John Davies (born 1949 in Sedgefield, County Durham, England) is a British landscape photographer. He is known for completing long-term projects documenting Britain and its industrial and urban landscape. He juxtaposes elements of history, industry and social activity within a single composition to critically examine our social geography.

The British Landscape is his best-known body of work

Fuji City Mount Fuji, Japan is a meditation on the balance between nature and industry.

The shift in subject matter also developed into a fascination with urban regeneration and work on this includes his Metropoli Project, City State, and Cities on the Edge, the latter of which he curated, in addition to contributing images of his own.

Not judgemental – ask questions. People have different reactions to different images. Doesn’t include many people, but images are about what people have done in the environment.

The caption to Davies’s Ffestiniog Railway image reads:
“The Ffestiniog Railway was originally built to transport local slate, but in
1964, following new connections to the national railway network, trains
began serving the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station. Although the
decommissioning of Trawsfynydd began in 1991, the railway continued
to be used daily to transport 50-ton flasks of nuclear fuel and waste to
the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria. Sellafield stopped taking
waste from Trawsfynydd in 1997.”


He is known for producing large photographic prints of images produced from high vantage points, using traditional darkroom techniques. His work in the 1980s primarily used medium format cameras, and work from the 1990s alarge format camera, although in recent years he has begun using dSLR and digital medium format cameras in his work as well.

The stylistic components reference – with irony – the picturesque:

  • Davies’s photographs are nearly always taken from high vantage points that hint towards a welltrodden, formalised ‘viewpoint’, looking out across views with foregrounds, middle distance and backgrounds (usually a rolling hill).
  • He continues to work with black-and-white film, linking his work to the classical aesthetics of Adams and Weston.

Liz Wells (2011, pp.170–71) identifies a potential problem with Davies’s relation to the picturesque:
“… his work operates as a visual archive of post-industrial Britain. But his personal style is so marked that content risks becoming subservient within a generalised vision of industrial legacy in ways that work against any sense of the specificity of each site. There is a risk that political commentary is diluted rather than distilled, as the industrial becomes a strand within a new picturesque.”


Davies was born in Sedgefield, County Durham, in 1949. He grew up in coal mining and farming communities, and this combination of open space and industry was to become a persistent motif in his creative work. His early life was spent living in industrial landscapes in County Durham and Nottinghamshire.

He studied Photography, first attending Mansfield School of Art to complete a Foundation Course, then studying at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University), graduating in 1974. Following this, he began working on long-term projects, seeking commissions and arts funding to support his work. He has worked closely with Amber/Side Collective on a number of commissions. In 1981, Davies won a one-year Photography Fellowship at Sheffield Polytechnic, and he became Senior Research Fellow at the Art School of University of Wales Cardiff (UWIC) in 1995.

He has also become involved in local politics, as his interest in the use of public space has been both personal and professional. He lives with his partner and their daughter Alix in Liverpool, England.

Books by Davies

  • Aggie Weston’s no.13. Belper, Derbyshire: Stuart Mills, 1977 ASIN B0007C4X2C.
  • The Valleys project. Cardiff: Ffotogallery, 1985.
  • On the edge of White Peak. Derbyshire Museum Services, UK, 1985.
  • In the wake of King Cotton. Rochdale Art Gallery, UK, 1986.
  • Mist Mountain Water Wind. London: Traveling Light, 1986. ISBN 0-906333-18-0.
  • A Green & Pleasant Land. Manchester: Cornerhouse, 1987. ISBN 0-948797-10-X soft cover ISBN 0-948797-15-0.
  • Autoroute A26, Calais – Reims. Douchy, France: Mission Photogaphique Transmanche, 1989. ISBN 2-904538-16-X.
  • Phase 11 (eleven). London: The Photographers’ Gallery; London: Davenport, 1991. ISBN 0-907879-27-6.
  • Broadgate. London: Davenport, 1991.
  • Cross Currents. Cardiff: Ffotogallery; Manchester: Cornerhouse, 1992. ISBN 0-948797-32-0.
  • Linea di Confine della Provincia di Reggio Emillia Laboratorio di Fotografia 5. Arcadia Edizioni & Assessorato alla Cultra del Comune di Rubiera, Italy, 1992.
  • Skylines. Valencia University, Imp. Mari Montanana, Spain, 1993.
  • Through fire and water: River Taff. Oriel (The Arts Council of Wales’ Gallery, Cardiff); National Museum & Galleries of Wales, 1997. ISBN 0-946329-45-1.
  • Sguardigardesani. Milan, Italy: Charta, 1999. ISBN 88-8158-223-6.
  • Temps et Paysage. Tarabuste / Centre d’art et du Paysage, 2000. ISBN 2-84587-010-8.
  • Visa III, Littoral / Le retour de la nature. Filigranes, 2001. ISBN 2-914381-17-4.
  • Seine Valley. Le Point du Jour Editeur / Pole Image Haute-Normandie, France, 2002. ISBN 2-912132-21-5.
  • The British Landscape. Chris Boot, 2006. ISBN 0-9546894-7-X.
  • Cities on the Edge. Liverpool: Liverpool University, 2008. ISBN 978-1-84631-186-4.
  • Urban Landscapes / Krajobrazy Miejskie. Poznań, Poland: Centrum Kultury ‘Zamek’, 2008.
  • European Eyes on Japan / Japan Today volume 10. EU-Japan fest / European Eyes on Japan, 2008.