Monday, March 9, 2015

Surreal industrial landscapes to the culture of stewardship

Wasn’t I the lucky camper last week when I attended a talk by Edward Burtynsky at Mount Royal University?  The correct answer: YES!!!

Edward Burtynsky is a photographer who looks for patterns in human behavior that have a huge and lasting impact on the landscape.

Think about the huge open mining pits in Ontario, British Columbia, or Utah.  Or the oil fields in California that cover vast areas of moonscape-like terrain. Or areas he calls ‘urban mines’ that encompass colossal mounds of tires or pyramids of stacked cubes of crushed scrap metal.

None of these are landscapes that I’d go looking for to photograph. But Burtynsky’s work captures a terrible beauty while informing us about the undeniable impact humans have on this planet.  His photographs don’t chastise but let us draw our own conclusions about the need for oil extraction, water use, transportation and our methods of production, consumption and disposal of waste.

Cover:  nickel tailings, Ontario

Manufactured Landscapes, both the over-sized coffee-table book and the DVD, draw us into our world in new ways, giving us new perspectives, whether he’s at ground level or taking aerial shots.  No one would ever argue that these are small problems but seeing these images on such a large scale, certainly and scarily, brings home this point.

Cover: Xiaolangdi Dam, China

The book, Water is available in the Doucette Library as an enhanced e-book app. Many of the images included in this book, I was lucky enough see and hear the photographer discuss in his talk last week.  But as an app, you, too, can hear the artist as he speaks to the images.  The e-book includes pop-up maps and zoom capabilities, as well. This is an intriguing format which is worth a look, but for me, it took away from the images as an artistic statement.

One question posed by an audience member at the talk, was about how he keeps going after photographing these kinds of images for over 40 years.  There is a sense of being overwhelmed by how much humans take without real consideration for short or long-term impact.  He ended on a positive note; saying that he thinks we are moving into a time when we will become better stewards of the planet and sees young people, concerned with their own healthy living, becoming more aware of quality of air, water, and food when it impacts them directly.  They will become better advocates for the environment.

Using Burtynsky’s work in a classroom would work at many levels because the images are so compelling.  Reading level is appropriate for high school and up. The images could be used in a teaching context in upper elementary and junior high school.  The e-book version of Water where sections are read out loud would be a great advantage for struggling readers.  Great opportunities for integrating content areas connecting environmental issues with social, political, geographical and scientific thinking.


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