July 15, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes

This weekend I went to see a documentary about the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky specializes in large, stunning images of industrial excess and environmental degradation -- his underlying preoccupation is the way in which humans have irreperably altered the natural world. He's done series on quarries, mines, and oil fields; in the film, the director, Jennifer Baichwal, follows Burtynsky on a shoot in China, where he composes meticulous images of factory floors, manufacturing plants and dense urban neighborhoods. The film somehow manages to combine an admiration of Burtynsky's work with a certain discomfort at his habit of finding beautiful forms and patterns in a crowded factory or a pile of industrial waste without acknowledging the resulting human misery. In fact, humans don't figure very prominently in Burtynsky's work at all, but Baichwal's interviews with people who live or work by the locations that he is photographing make the consequences of China's unrestrained capitalism painfully clear. A friend who saw the movie with me thought that Baichwal's photography and point of view eclipsed Burtynsky's, and I think she might be right. The movie is still playing in DC and is definitely worth checking out.