Edward Burtynsky, Three Gorges Dam Project, Wan Zhou #1, 2002, chromogenic print, edition 1/5. Collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, purchased with the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program.

About the Artwork

In this image we get a glimpse of the social and environmental consequences of China’s controversial $180 billion Three Gorges project. This mammoth project is designed to stop the seasonal flooding of China’s largest river, the Yangtze, and to provide hydro-electric power for the country’s rapidly growing manufacturing industries. 

Wan Zhou is a small city along the Yangtze that is affected by the project. In the image presented here, Burtynsky shows a few people picking through the rubble of buildings near the riverbank. The buildings have been demolished and the residents relocated in advance of the rising waters that will eventually cover this part of the city. The figures of the people are small in comparison by the rubble around them, and particularly by the single steel beam that rises out of the debris. The people’s clothing provides the only colour in an otherwise drab scene. The rubble and the mist-shrouded river in the background that blend together, further emphasizing the immense scale of the project. 

About the Artist

Edward Burtynsky was born in St. Catherines, Ontario in 1955. His interest in photography began at an early age; 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 Polytechnic Institute 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) 

I2000 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) 

Things to Think About

  • Burtynsky uses large format view cameras that use 4’x5′ and 8’x10′ plates, enabling him to capture very detailed photos. Using large cameras also forces him to slow down when he’s preparing a shot. He says this helps him avoid the photojournalistic approach that can occur with a small 35 mm camera. Using this style of photography do you think it is effective in conveying a message? How so?

  • Burtynsky takes great care to maintain an ambiguous standpoint in his photos, neither condemning what he photographs, nor applauding it. Examine Three Gorges Dam Project, Wan Zhou #1 2002 and discuss how the artist has explored both viewpoints.
  • Burtynsky says how a viewer interprets his photos tells a lot about that person. What is your interpretation of Three Gorges Dam Project, Wan Zhou #1 2002, and what do you think it reveals about you?
  • What risks do artists take in the pursuit of socio-political material that they need in order to express themselves? 

Post your artwork online using the hashtag #studiosundaysyqr!

Studio Activity

Burtynsky’s photography focuses in on our impact on the environment and how we interact with it. Using these ideas, create an artwork from an aerial perspective that conveys a message about our relationship to the environment 


What you Need:

  • Electronic map (Google maps, Google Earth) 
  • Drawing utensils 
  • Paper

What you Do:

  • Using an electronic map like Google Maps or Earth, find an aerial view of a building, lake, city, etc., that you could transform into an artwork. 
  • Once you have chosen your aerial view you can trace or freehand the outline of the map.  
  • Transform your outline into an artwork. For example, if a building from an aerial perspective resembled a lake, you can turn it into a natural scene. Think about how people have imposed technology and infrastructure on the land and how we can interact with the environment in more considerate ways. Feel free to add natural elements that are impacted by industry, including animals, plants, and earth formations. 
  • Additionally, using Google Maps, you can use the “travel back” option. On street view, click the clock at the top of your page, and drag from the oldest year to the current to view how the landscape has changed over time. Compare your artwork to what you see. How has it changed? What has stayed the same?