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Delta Reds: Edward Burtynsky's 'Nickel Tailings No. 30, Sudbur, Ontario,' finds beauty even in toxicity.

Mining the Image

Edward Burtynsky's photographs at Stanford depict ravaged but strangely compelling landscapes

By Michael S. Gant

THE ENTRY image for Manufactured Landscapes, the Cantor Arts Center's show of works by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, is a bit misleading. Oil Refinery No. 27 focuses on a gleaming grid of stainless-steel pipes receding into the distance. Orderly and antiseptic, the picture recalls the factory close-ups of '30s photographers like Margaret Bourke-White and Charles Sheeler.

Burtynsky's real subject, however, is not the self-contained man-made infrastructure of industry but the man-made-over natural landscapes that corporations rarely pick to illustrate their annual reports. In his Railcuts series, a strip of railroad track incises a low horizon line across eroding mountain walls. A photo from Ontario, Canada, exudes devastation: bare tree trunks protrude from what appears to be an ice field until you check the title—Uranium Tailings No. 12—and realize that the chalky substance covering everything in sight is radioactive sand, the byproduct of mining for nuclear fuel.

These large-format dye-coupler color prints aren't meant as environmentalist statements. Burtynsky's photographs are highly aesthetic and framed to create flat, painterly perspectives.

Often, what might at first glimpse be repellent—excavated terraces rising from a pool of green waste water at a copper mine—proves to be strangely gorgeous. There is something thrilling in the God's-eye view; it takes close staring to see that the minute objects one-third the way up the ringed bowl of earth are actually boxcars being fed by a massive steam shovel.

The effect is especially unsettling in the Nickel Tailings series, in which the detritus from a mining operation flows across the terrain like lava, creating troughs of pure red and fanlike deltas of orange and yellow. These fiery streams look like the natural result of volcanic activity and not a deliberate despoiling of nature.

Some photographs of rock quarries evolve into pure pattern. Rock of Ages No. 17 offers no hints about how to read the horizontal cuts across a wall of snow-dusted, oxide-stained granite. The electrical cords winding across a pure-white marble quarry look like so many ink doodles.

Burtynsky's images deliberate comment on 19th-century American landscape art and photography. A good example can be found on the same floor of the museum in the Cantor's permanent collection. Thomas Hill's painting Yosemite Valley (1889) features the same immensity of vertical rock as Burtynsky's quarry photographs. A sense of overwhelming vertigo is heightened by the tiny foreground figure of an Indian, like the miniature earth movers in Burtynsky's tableaux.

The most compelling photographs come from Burtynsky's Shipbreaking series. The dangerous business of dismantling oil tankers has been outsourced to Bangladesh, where the vessels are hauled onshore, dissected with welding torches and sold for scrap by workmen toiling without regard for their personal safety or the potential for pollution.

The industry has attracted a variety of photographers; there is no denying the powerful effect of these behemoths being consumed on remote beaches. The Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiäo Salgado made his images (taken at Chittagong, where Burtynsky also shot) part of a project devoted to the misery of the planet's dirtiest work. In Burtynsky's take, the rusting hulls loom as majestic as the monuments of the ancients. The men who dismantle them are as relentless as the sands of time, but although they wear no protective gear, they don't look oppressed, just dogged.

Burtynsky's long view puts us in the position of a traveler from the future marveling at a once-potent totem of global trade, as if it were the Ozymandias of the industrial revolution: "Round the decay/ of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ the lone and level sands stretch far away."


Manufactured Landscapes runs through Sept. 18 at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. (650.723.4177). A coffee-table catalog by Lori Pauli (Yale University Press) accompanies the show.


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From the July 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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