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.


1: Beauty and Sublime 3: Landscape as Political Text 6: Transitions

Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky (born January 15, 1955) is a German photographer and Professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany. Gursky shares a studio with Laurenz Berges, Thomas Ruff and Axel Hutte on the Hansaallee, in Düsseldorf. The building, a former electricity station, was transformed into an artists studio and living quarters, in 2001, by architects Herzog & de Meuron, of Tate Modern fame. In 2010-11, the architects worked again on the building, designing a gallery in the basement.

He is known for his large format architecture and landscape colour photographs, often employing a high point of view. Before the 1990s, Gursky did not digitally manipulate his images. In the years since, Gursky has been frank about his reliance on computers to edit and enhance his pictures, creating an art of spaces larger than the subjects photographed.

The perspective in many of Gursky’s photographs is drawn from an elevated vantage point. This position enables the viewer to encounter scenes, encompassing both centre and periphery, which are ordinarily beyond reach. Visually, Gursky is drawn to large, anonymous, man-made spaces—high-rise facades at night, office lobbies, stock exchanges, the interiors of big box retailers (See his print 99 Cent II Diptychon).

Gursky’s style is enigmatic and deadpan. There is little to no explanation or manipulation on the works. His photography is straightforward.

Gursky’s Dance Valley festival photograph, taken near Amsterdam in 1995, depicts attendees facing a DJ stand in a large arena, beneath strobe lighting effects. The pouring smoke resembles a human hand, holding the crowd in stasis. After completing the print, Gursky explained the only music he now listens to is the anonymous, beat-heavy style known as Trance, as its symmetry and simplicity echoes his own work—while playing towards a deeper, more visceral emotion.

The photograph 99 Cent (1999) was taken at a 99 Cents Only store on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and depicts its interior as a stretched horizontal composition of parallel shelves, intersected by vertical white columns, in which the abundance of “neatly labeled packets are transformed into fields of colour, generated by endless arrays of identical products, reflecting off the shiny ceiling” (Wyatt Mason).

The Rhine II (1999), depicts a stretch of the river Rhine outside Düsseldorf, immediately legible as a view of a straight stretch of water, but also as an abstract configuration of horizontal bands of colour of varying widths.]

In his six-part series Ocean I-VI (2009-2010), Gursky used high-definition satellite photographs which he augmented from various picture sources on the Internet.



1: Beauty and Sublime

The Beautiful and the Sublime

“The Sublime” radio 4 podcast In our time

Concepts of beauty

“Beauty and art were once thought of as belonging together, with beauty as among art’s principle aims and art as beauty’s highest calling” Beech 2009 p12

“Why is form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life mat be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning” Adams 1996 p25

“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case, the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it.” Edmund Burke 1757.

Beauty is very much an aspect of aesthetics or more simply our ‘senses’; sensuous music and sounds, textiles and textures, pleasant flavours and smells. There are essentially two perspectives:

1) beauty as  ‘objective’ universal within human nature. Mathematical and geometric evaluations of pieces of music, human features and pictorial composition have been used to support this view.

2) beauty as subjective ‘taste’  ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’. As personal and/or a matter of cultural identity, what is beautiful to one group of people may be vulgar and repulsive to another.

Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), was regarded as the antithesis of sublime since it exemplified classical beauty through its formal harmony, elegance and subtle luminosity.

Modernist debates and Marxist critiques of beauty have made it a political matter – a bourgeois preoccupation and tool of repression.

Dadaists Otto Dix (1891-1969) satirised images of conventional, romantic notions of beauty and fascist ideals of perfection in his politically challenging paintings made around the dawn of the Second World War.

Conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp‘s urinal placed in gallery context.

 Concepts of the sublime

 “the sublime is associated with awe, danger and pain, with places where accidents happen, where things run beyond human control, where nature is untameable.”
Liz Wells

 Longinus (c300AD) passage about poetry and rhetoric in ‘The True Sublime’ in Book 7 of the Peri HypsousFor by some innate power the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy; just as though we had ourselves produced what we had heard.

Kant, Hegel, johann sciller.

Etymology: 1580s, “expressing lofty ideas in an elevated manner,” from Middle French sublime (15c.), or directly from Latin sublimis “uplifted, high, borne aloft, lofty, exalted, eminent, distinguished,” possibly originally “sloping up to the lintel,” from sub “up to” + limen “lintel, threshold, sill” (see limit (n.)). The sublime (n.) “the sublime part of anything, that which is stately or imposing” is from 1670s.

British Art and the Sublime Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn

The English word derives from a conjunction of two Latin terms, the preposition sub, meaning below or up to and the noun limen, meaning limit, boundary or threshold. Limen is also the word for ‘lintel’, the heavy wooden or stone beam that holds the weight of a wall up above a doorway or a window. This sense of not only striving or pushing upwards but also against an overbearing force is an important connotation for the word sublime. By the seventeenth century, the word in English was in use both as an adjective and as a noun (the sublime) with many shades of meaning but invariably referring to things that are raised aloft, set high up and exalted, whether they be buildings, ideas, people, language, style or other aspects of or responses to art and nature.
By about 1700 an additional theme started to develop, which was that the sublime in writing, nature, art or human conduct was regarded as of such exalted status that it was beyond normal experience, perhaps even beyond the reach of human understanding. In its greatness or intensity and whether physical, metaphysical, moral, aesthetic or spiritual, by the time of the Enlightenment, the sublime was generally regarded as beyond comprehension and beyond measurement.

Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757 broke the idea of the sublime down into seven aspects, all of which Burke argued were discernible in the natural world and in natural phenomena:

  • Darkness – which constrains the sense of sight (primary among the five senses)
  • Obscurity – which confuses judgement
  • Privation (or deprivation) – since pain is more powerful than pleasure
  • Vastness – which is beyond comprehension
  • Magnificence – in the face of which we are in awe
  • Loudness – which overwhelms us
  • Suddenness – which shocks our sensibilities to the point of disablement
The ‘romantic sublime’ was a particularly common theme throughout 18th and 19th century painting with religious and spiritual overtones. Sublime was a term that was used in art writing alongside adjectives such as ‘awful’, ‘dreadful’ and ‘terrible’, which today tend simply to denote ‘less than ideal’ but which in the 1700s were understood explicitly as expressions of awe, dread and terror, and were associated with the sublime as standard elements in aesthetic discourse. Sublime landscape painters, especially in the Romantic period, around 1800, tended to take subjects such as towering mountain ranges, deep chasms, violent storms, rough seas, volcanic eruptions or avalanches that, if actually experienced, would be dangerous and even life-threatening.

John Martin

JMW Turner

Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer above the sea of the fog / above the mist 1818 

James Ward:  Gordale Scar 1812-1814

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) defines the sublime as not just an aspect of aesthetics, but of psychoanalysis. He related it to his idea of ‘the uncanny’ which refers to a feeling of discomfort when seeing something that is simultaneously familiar and alien. ‘Das Unheimliche’ not just in terms of location, but in terms of identity. The un-settlement, or cognitive dissonance that can result from an encounter with the uncanny is what can stir the sense of the sublime.

So becomes something that occupies the imagination. Something that triggers a psychoactive response in an individual.

Philip Shaw ‘Modernism and the Sublime’

Lucio Fontana (1950s) punched holes (or buchi) through his canvases, the aim being literally to break through the surface of the work so that the viewer can perceive the space that lies beyond. Fontana regarded this gesture as a means of disclosing the unlimited space of the sublime, announcing ‘I have created an infinite dimension’. In some works slashes executed with a razor seem to erupt outwards, conveying the force of the original assault towards the viewer in a way that is both energetic and terrifying.

Mark Rothko   Robert Rosenblum in‘The Abstract Sublime’ (1961) writes: ‘the floating, horizontal tiers of veiled light in the Rothko seem to conceal a total, remote presence that we can only intuit and never fully grasp. These infinite, glowing voids carry us beyond reason to the Sublime; we can only submit to them in an act of faith and let ourselves be absorbed into their radiant depths’. Rothko’s biographer James Breslin writes: ‘Rothko … constantly felt the imminent danger of being ‘smothered’ by encroaching physical, social, or domestic circumstances. His new paintings created a breathing space. Yet these paintings do not seek simply to ‘transcend’ the walls of an unalterable external reality by soaring upward into either an untrammelled freedom or a vaporous mysticism. Rather, by (in Rothko’s words) pulverising the verge of dissolution – his works free us from the weight, solidity, and definition of a material existence, whose constricting pressures we still feel. Rothko combines freedom and constraint and if these paintings create ‘dramas’ with the shapes as the ‘performers’ they stage a struggle to be free.’

“in many cultures, a confrontation of the sublime is a requisite rite of passage. Within my project, Threshold Zone (2008) I explored and attempted to rationalise my own response to both man-made and naturally formed underground spaces. I felt curious, and was determined to make some work in these spaces, but I was also acutely phobic of being underground, particularly when working alone. These spaces were generally physically unfamiliar to me, yet my mind was filled with familiar fairytales and contemporary narratives relating to the dangers that lurk below ground in the darkness. I channelled these feelings into a creative strategy, in which I placed my camera in a space referred to as ‘twilight’ or ‘threshold zone’ of a cave that receives some daylight, and the ‘dark zone’ that receives none. The resulting, highly contrasting images which are presented as back-lit light-boxes, I hope illustrate my encounter with the sublime’ Jesse Alexander 2013 p 40.

The sublime radio 4 Podcast In our time

 Exercise 1.6 The contemporary abyss

Since the very beginning of photography, the city has provided opportunities for the photographer: landscape and other subject matter.