There’s a certain resonance in the fact that photographer Edward Burtynsky is seated on the stairwell of a fashionable Harajuku building for this interview. It looks out on a neighborhood that is one of Japan’s—and the world’s—consumer hot spots, a catwalk filled with people in dressed the latest trends and flashing the newest gadgets. Burtynsky’s eyes, grayish and blue, don’t really seem to take it in. He doesn’t do fashion. But he does know a few things about the cost of what he sees.
One of Canada’s leading artists, Burtynsky has traveled to places from where most of our possessions originate, and where they ultimately end up. Over the span of two decades he’s headed into the world’s largest quarries and pits, to immense factories where the assembly lines stretch to the horizon and to vast recycling yards where laborers work with tools unchanged since the Iron Age.
Working with a large-format camera, he’s brought back images that are mesmerizingly beautiful, even as they show the ravages of industrialization on a scale previously unknown. His photos have won him international awards and turned him into the subject of a 2006 documentary, “Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured Landscapes.” Made by fellow Canadian Jennifer Baichwal, the film has been hailed by Al Gore as “extraordinary, haunting, beautiful, insightful and thought-provoking.”
Yet the photographer is no “card-carrying environmentalist”—to use his own phrase. And his words, much like his photographs, are less about shock and awe than they are about measured reflection.
“We are like the smoker who knows cigarettes are bad, but finds it hard to imagine life without them.
“We are, in a global scale, addicted to a certain standard of living, to certain foods and forms of transportation,” says Burtynsky, who flew 6,479 air miles from Toronto to Tokyo in advance of the film’s July 12 opening at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and Image Forum Theatre.
“When I get on a jet and fly somewhere, I understand that I am part of the problem. But at the same time I find some relief in the fact that I am trying to use my work to address it.”