Edward Burtynsky was born in St. Catherines, Ontario in 1955. His interest in photography began at an early age; with the help of his father and sister he set up a darkroom in the basement of the family home when he was only 11.
Burtynsky had an early introduction to modern industrial activities. When he was still a teenager, he worked at summer jobs in the motor vehicle plants in his hometown, and at age 20 he worked as an underground gold miner at a mine in northwestern Ontario. He studied Graphic Arts at Niagara College and received a bachelor’s degree in Photography and Media Studies from Ryerson University in Toronto.
Early in his career Burtynsky made two trips to western Canada to focus his large-format view cameras on mines, rail cuts and homesteads. Burtynsky has also examined other industrial activities such as quarrying, recycling, oil refining and shipbreaking in his work.
“Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work…I set a course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale, yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output daily.” (Burtynsky, 2004)
Burtynsky does not portray his subjects in a judgmental way, however. He notes that companies must decide whether to allow him onto their properties to take his photographs or not. Many companies agree, he suggests, because his images “…can be read in multiple ways. So, you could have the same image in a boardroom and, frankly, the image could also be used for a poster campaign for an environmental group. … I try to place the work in that kind of ambiguous zone.” (Dixon, 2005)
Burtynsky’s photographs are not intended to alert us to the devastation caused by industry, nor are they meant to celebrate the achievements of technological progress. They serve to reconnect viewers to the aspects of manufacturing and technological production that are usually ignored or at least rarely considered. At the same time, those photographs challenge viewers to redefine their concept of what constitutes a landscape. (National Gallery of Canada media release, 2003)
In 2000 Burtynsky shifted his investigation of humankind’s impact on the land and its resources from North America to China. China was amid a rapid transformation to a capitalist economy, reenacting the industrialization that took place in North America over the past two centuries, but on a scale never attempted. “It’s like that moment in the U.S. in the thirties and forties when the Hoover Dam and all the roads and bridges were built,” Burtynsky explains. “Great expansion, fueled by an abundance of cheap and willing labor.” (Milroy, 2005)