Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why can't I quite bring myself to like... Edward Burtynsky


Number two in a (hopefully) short series. And I must say that I also feel mildly un-Canadian - as well as unfashionable - posting this. We don't have that many photographers on the world stage (Jeff Wall, Geoffrey James, Lynne Cohen, Robert Polidori... okay I've probably missed a few - and Ed Burtynsky). The problem is, I have a hard time really liking Burtynsky's work

Certainly it's all the rage right now, he had the big Manufactured Landscape show and book at the National Gallery of Canada a couple of years ago, his new China book came out last year and another on the Three Gorges, he won the Ted Prize with Bono, there's even Burtynsky the movie.

But somehow the photographs just don't excite or intrigue me. And the thing is, they should. I think it's pretty obvious I'm a big Struthsky fan (along with Lynne Cohen, Candida Hoeffer, Chris Jordan etc). I really like the big, colour modern (post-modern?) work. I've looked closely at Burtynsky's books, I've peered at the big selection of prints that the Art Gallery of Alberta has, I've heard him talk and even buttonholed him afterwards, but somehow the juices just don't flow. In fact the feeling I had after spending quite a while in his show and his well illustrated lecture was... disappointment. I just didn't come away from it excited or moved or full of new ideas (which is how I felt after seeing Gursky and Struth at the Tate Modern for example).

Among all the recent praise there was, unusually, a rather scathing review in the NY Times - The reviewer didn't like Burtynsky's work, but mainly for all the wrong reasons. He was put off by the way Burtynsky will abstract something so you aren't quite sure what it is, or how he will use the same approach to different subjects - which are all approaches well utilised by plenty of other photographers. The closest he actually came to defining his unease was in suggesting that Burtynsky is really "just" a National Geographic photographer with a big camera - but I'm not entirely convinced that it's that either (though I think perhaps he had a kernel of something there).

My biggest difficulty with the work is that it is full of excellent ideas, good concepts - but that's where a lot of it stops - it doesn't go the rest of the way and find something more deeply important, something meaningful - beyond the obvious. It's not clinical like Lynne Cohen's work, but perhaps cool (in the chilly sense of the word), intellectual, but not felt - or at least that is what comes across to me. The work is very contemporary in style, but it's almost too flat, not sharp (punctum) or poignant. I guess I could sum it up by saying I found Burtynsky far more interesting to listen to than I found it looking at his work. He had a few early pieces which were actually quite intriguing but it's almost as if he lost the way after this. The message has taken over, the idea has become the thing - but that's only half of it - the work is missing the rest. The message has become the medium.

Yes, there are certain individual pictures of his that draw me more than others - the oilfield pictures for example - and also some that are individually beautiful. There are others that fascinate for a little while - the scale of the Three Gorges photographs. But I'm still trying to figure out why, when I like so much apparently similar work, I can't quite get hooked by his? Maybe I'm the only one that doesn't get it... So any hints - let me know.

7 comments:

stanco said...

I'm not sold on his entire body of work either. And for me it's pretty simple- I just don't like the flat perspectives that even short telephotos provide, so a lot of his compositions, despite the "exotic" subject matter, just leave me cold.

david said...

i went 5 times to the book shop to buy the china's book... i wanted to have it, and when i was looking at it, i thought that in fact i didn't like it completely without being able to say why.
Coming back home, i thought "i should have buy it"...
Finally, i receive it for my birthday, it is on the shell, near by evans, wall, gursky, needermayer... but i don't think is in the same league, dispate his documentary style, once again it's just "clichés", it's a sort of canada dry ;-)

Guðmundur said...

Canada dry" is a good word to describe the atmosphere of Burtinsky's pictures. He also sort of glorifies pollution in finding beauty and "natural order" in it. Industry bosses and people in politics must like his work. When the governor of Canada came to Iceland a few years ago Burtinsy was on the escort team.

Denizen said...

Never been a big fan though I've seen a few exibits of his, and seeing his work in person is nice. The big scale, good color, great details and general technical excellence make for good viewing.
But of course it's when you start looking for the real meat that he falls short. I find him closer to the documentary tradition of the new topographers than the conceptual approach of the bechers and the Dusseldorf school. But he lacks the edge, and the experimental drive of those guys. Like it was said before, he seems to be treading on safe grounds after others have opened up the trail for him. In fact if I could make a bit of an oversimplified analogy I would say that he stands to the new topographers as someone like M. Kenna stands to Harry Callahan. In both cases we have groundbreakers producing challenging work and tecnically proficient and stylish followers producing tasteful work (that sells very well). Perhaps the enthusiastic acceptance of the establishment is also an indication of how little of substance there is in his imagery.

George LeChat said...

I'm with you,there's something missing in Burtynsky, but I don't quite know what it is. I always feel guilty when I see the shipbreaking pictures, for example, because they give me a thrill, even though, deep down, I know they're kitsch. One interesting comparison is with Richard Misrach, who is perhaps even more commercial than Burtynsky, but somehow, in my opinion, just a lot better.

tim atherton said...

One thing I'm never really sure about at all is "message" photography. Photography that is trying to be directly didactic. Sometime, especially in photojournalism, it does occasionally seem to have an effect, but less so with "art" photography. And often I don't think it does at all.

So if a big part of the message of the work is consumption, the destruction of nature, our dependence on oil or whatever, then the chances are that that side of it is going to fall short. And if the photogrpah isn't strong in other areas, it's going to end up empty. Even worse if the message is propping up the photogrpah.

If Don McCullin felt his work never changed a damn thing, I don't think luscious photographs of consumerism are likely to...

julien frank said...

Hi, Tim.
I recall your posts from my early Leica days...
Agree with you as well. I saw his show last month here in Vancouver and while you can admire his virtuosity with ground glass, you realize quickly that technique trumps all in his "point of view." He is to the "new" documentarians (Struth, Hofer, Bechers etc.) what Salgado is to photojournalism.
Cheers, L.Bacchus (Julien Frank)