NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — By the numbers, “Edward Burtynsky: Earth Observed” is a small show, with just 31 photographs. There’s also a nine-minute video showing Burtynsky at work. That’s it. Yet in ways that matter more than the merely numerical — sweep, scale, ambition, urgency — it has the heft, and impact, of a much larger show.
“Edward Burtynsky: Earth Observed,” which runs through April 16 at the New Britain Museum of American Art, might be seen as a stripped-down Burtynsky career retrospective. It proceeds in roughly chronological order, with the earliest photograph from 1985, and the most recent from 2016. Five continents are represented, with only Antarctica and South America missing.
That there are so relatively few images may be just as well. Otherwise the show would be overwhelming. Partly that’s attributable to how large the photographs tend to be. A picture of a Nigerian saw mill is 4 feet by more than 5 feet. One of pivot irrigation in the Texas Panhandle is 5½ feet by nearly 3 feet.
The sole exception is a view of China’s Three Gorges Dam project. It’s a “mere” 18 inches by 16 inches. That wouldn’t qualify as small for most other photographers. For Burtynsky, it’s practically a contact print. It’s a reminder that he doesn’t so much confront scale as embrace it. Scale in his work becomes its own visual value, as much as tonality or composition. The old joke that size matters takes on a different meaning here: Size is expected. No, more than that: It’s required. “Photograph” is almost too paltry a word for Burtynsky’s images.
The scale suits the subject matter, and that subject matter is even more overwhelming than the size of the images. For four decades, Burtynsky has been documenting what he once described as “contemporary interventions in the landscape.” “Interventions” is a word that allows for many applications. The show comprises six sections, and their titles give a sense of those applications: “Mines and Tailings”; “Mineral Extractions: Railcuts and Quarries”; “Manufacturing: Oil, Tire Piles, and Shipbuilding”; Manufacturing: China”; “Water”; and “Anthropocene.” Those last two speak to Burtynsky’s ambitiousness.
The interventions are human handiwork. All but one of the photographs show examples of it. The one that doesn’t is an aerial view of an Icelandic river far from any human habitation. Yet with climate change even that pristine setting is no longer untouched by homo sapiens.
The presence of actual humans is rare. The army of pink-suited workers on an assembly line at a Chinese poultry-processing plant seem less like individuals than pieces of machinery. At the other extreme is the image of a man with his donkey. They stand at the center of an expanse of emptiness, dust, and rubble. In the background, a scattering of other people can be seen, but it’s that man and the donkey that dominate the scene. In part, that’s because there’s so little visual competition. What used to be there, the wall text explains, was a city of 80,000, evacuated and torn down for construction of the Three Gorges Dam. It’s a striking image without that knowledge. With it, it becomes unnerving.
The economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction” to describe the workings of capitalism, emphasis on creativity. What draws Burtynsky might be described as “destructive creation.” The emphasis is on destruction, but the element of creativity should not, or even cannot, be overlooked. There’s the creativity of economic transaction. Even more pertinent for Burtynsky are the astonishing visual results of quarrying and mining and shipbreaking and dam building.
The concept of the sublime has a centuries-long tradition in Western visual art. Originally applied to nature, it entailed a combination of magnificence, awe, and menace, or even terror: beauty, if you will, with a jolt. Burtynsky consciously alludes to it with the lowering clouds over mountains in “Carrara Marble Quarries #20,” from 1993.
Eventually, there would evolve a concept of the “industrial sublime,” with celebration supplanting menace. It’s clearest expression is perhaps Charles Sheeler’s series of photographs from the 1920s of the Ford River Rouge plant.
Burtynsky’s biography intersects with both the traditional sublime (he grew up in Ontario, near that touchstone of the natural sublime, Niagara Falls) and the industrial (his father worked as a welder in a General Motors factory). His photographs transcend both categories, creating their own version: the late-capitalist sublime. There’s nothing celebratory about it — menace is very much back — but awe still applies, as it should. His work, as Burtynsky puts it, is “a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear.”
The condemnation his work offers is implicit. So is the amazement. Violation has an element of creation — certainly, an element of grandeur — within the destruction it visits on the land. An extreme example would be “Oxford Tire Pile, Westley, California,” from 1999. What Burtynsky documents defies comprehension: a dumping ground for 7 million discarded tires. A year later, a lightning strike started a fire that lasted 30 days and released more oil pollutants than the Exxon Valdez supertanker spill.
A 2005 photograph of the grounds of a Shanghai steel mill looks sci-fi spooky: smoggy air, a set of smokestacks in the distance, and a group of pyramidal slag heaps in the foreground. We could be looking at a glimpse of Giza transported to Mordor. Here’s an example of how the directness of Burtynsky’s approach — uninflected, unblinking, straight on (or from above) — makes the direness of his subjects all the more powerful. He knows he doesn’t need to rely on formal responses for expressivity, since the content is already to such a degree expressive, and in ways so profound (and often ghastly) that any overt emotiveness would be a kind of cheat.
In that regard, Burtynsky differs from his most obvious counterpart, Sebastião Salgado. Both men have devoted their careers to showing environmental depredation. Where they differ is that Salgado emphasizes the human element, and the work can be almost operatic in its stupendousness (not too strong a word). Stupendous applies to Burtynsky’s photographs, too, though he avoids obvious effects. The sole exception here is a view of the Three Gorges Dam taken at magic hour.
If there’s another art form Burtynsky aspires to it isn’t musical but other visual media. Sometimes the medium can be architecture or sculpture. His head-on, from-below photograph of a vessel being built in a Chinese shipyard balances solidity and line. It’s like a single, gargantuan prow and even more pharaonic than those pyramidal slag heaps in Shanghai.
More often it’s painting. Burtynsky’s father was an enthusiastic weekend painter, and the photographer has spoken of the impression this made on him. An aerial shot of an Australian mining operation could be a (very beautiful) abstract painting. That Icelandic river also looks like an abstraction, its watery strands of blue and gray resembling pourings of paint. That pivot-irrigation photograph recalls a set of immense hieroglyphics. One of the quarry images resembles a three-way version of a Cubist canvas, one of Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings blanched, and a Minimalist sculpture. A view of the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill shows ribbons of black within the green and blue. A kind of defilement, they look like necrotic ink spilled on a field of blue.
The first thing a visitor sees after exiting the Burtynsky show is a Helen Frankenthaler painting, “Estuary.” It speaks to the visual grip of Burtynsky’s photographs that, for a moment, the Frankenthaler looks like another one of them.
EDWARD BURTYNSKY: Earth Observed
At New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain, Conn., through April 16. 860-229-0257, ww.nbmaa.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.