Clicking while the Gulf Burns: Edward Burtynsky’s photography
Edward Burtynsky: Pentimento at Hasted Hunt Kraeutler
September 9 to October 16, 2010
537 West 24th Street
New York City, 212.627.5117
In Edward Burtynsky’s photographs both the natural and the human-altered landscape are engendered with a circumscribed notion of beauty and grandeur. He presents exacting and balanced compositions, heightened and saturated chroma, and vast yet often flattening scales in his photographs of quarries and strip mines. Most recently, his subject matter has expanded to include facets of oil production and consumption. I feel a misleading impulse to discuss Burtynsky’s work in terms of the Hudson River School with its optimism and its benevolent version of Manifest Destiny because his photographs speak to neither of these. While the glossy aesthetization of his images may inspire admiration and awe in their visual experience, the subjects they capture invoke fear and trepidation as they reveal our mistreatment of the earth. The photographs accomplish this awe through a Romantic sensibility in dramatic and atmospheric light, wide sweeping vistas (often from helicopters) and a general eye for abstraction in the landscape.
Burtynsky’s recent body of work at Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery, where I first encountered this new body of work depicting the “life cycle” of oil — oil fields, refineries, highways, recycling yards, car shows — left me feeling a disconnection between his aesthetics and his subject. The visual presentation of these images is seductive to a degree that leaves little depth possible for content. The tensions between his alluring imagery and the cruel realities from which it arises reached its height in an image of footprint-shaped puddles of oil in recycling yards juxtaposed by workers who stood knee-deep in used oil.
“Pentimento,” his current show at Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, though, seems a detour from Burtynsky’s usual style. These black and white, craggy-frame Polaroid prints from his Bangladesh ship-breaking series at first glance seem to show Burtnysky loosening up, slacking on his usual reign of control over the commercial slickness of his images. There’s a satisfying relinquishing of fuss over the cropping of his images and an authentic embrace of chance in the smudges, imprints and blemishing of the images. This rawness feels contiguous with the brutal task of the workers who are ripping hulking ships with little aid of machinery or technology. They strangely evoke, in their mysterious emptiness and sometimes posed figures, the otherworldly appearance of many photographs documenting the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
But, as the exhibition’s title suggests (pentimenti are traces of earlier layers in a painting), Burtynsky is ultimately more interested in artifice. There’s no building of layers in these photographs or revisions, just the illusion or suggestion of prior processes. The photograph, as a singular image derived from a negative, remains an indexical mark. The work, like the title, is more about a facile sensibility than any kind of conceptual or ethical gravity.
A few of Burtnysky’s Gulf Oil Spill photographs are concurrently on display in the gallery’s office. They show him up to his old tricks, which a friend of mine aptly described as “beautiful images of a disaster, like the scene of an accident that you can’t stop watching.” A few of the images depict at a distance ships extinguishing oil fires that trivialize their emotional impact in their remoteness, appearing cinematic and digitally spawned.
Like oil, Burtynsky’s photography practice is a lucrative industry. Judging from the dozens of shows he has each year (many concurrent and including the same photographic series), and from the luxury of donating the sales of his “Pentimento” series to the acquisitions budget of a Toronto photography gallery, Burtynsky’s studio has reaped no small fortune. I don’t think that’s a problem in itself, but his photographs don’t offer a deeper understanding of the complexities of his subject matter. They rest on simple summations of problems, without offering solutions, and often appear to be a strain of cultural imperialism. If he is feeling philanthropic, one can’t help wonder whether the money should go back from where it’s extracted by donating to an oil spill clean up effort or the economies of the ship-breakers’ Bangladesh? To this end, rather than perpetuating an industry, Burtynsky would be taking economic and conceptual risks outside of the picture plane and beyond the lens of the commercial camera.