Monday, March 10, 2008

Manufactured Landscapes / Edward Burtynsky

MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES is the striking new documentary on the world and work of renowned artist Edward Burtynsky. Internationally acclaimed for his large-scale photographs of “manufactured landscapes”—quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines and dams—Burtynsky creates stunningly beautiful art from civilization’s materials and debris. The film follows him through China, as he shoots the evidence and effects of that country’s massive industrial revolution.- Zeitgeist Films

Friday night I rented this documentary and watched it at home. My wife loved it, felt it had an important message about man's impact on the environment, and was really taken by EB's photographs. I felt differently: if I ever wanted to make photography seem boring to a bunch of students, to discourage them from getting into the field, this is the film I would show them.

The DVD seemed like a promotional handout that would be given to collectors interested in purchasing E.B.'s work. In the same way that people who purchase a Toyota Prius now feel like they've done some good, this film seemed to try to encourage buyers that E.B. really cares, that this work is important, that the planet will be saved. we explore the DVD extras, Al Gore is chiming in on one of the segments. WTF??? His inclusion on this film was so expected, so calculated, any thinking viewer saw it coming.

And who is this guy they keep showing, standing behind a view camera? He kind of looks like he could be an attorney for the Sierra Club. Oh, that's Burtynsky. Calm, professional, calculated, and at the top of his game, no question. Seems like a great guy, but after seeing the emotional exhibitionism of Tierney Gearon in the film The Mother Project, E.B. is just boring as he spouts vague platitudes about man and his impact on the environment.

E.B. points his camera at some interesting stuff, but it is all so clinical and un-emotional, that I feel the need to critique it. Richard Misrach, by comparison, touches on similar subject matter that seems to consistently deliver an emotional blow....even when you think you've seen it all, such as in his recent project "On The Beach".

Film maker Jennifer Baichwal did a great job creating a film version of the kind of quiet power that E.B.'s photographs carry. Baichwal hit a home run with her previous film about Shelby Lee Adams titled THE TRUE MEANING OF PICTURES. That film wrestled with the issues of a photographer's right to show what he wants to show amidst accusations of exploitation. The film transcended its subject matter and could be discussed for days. Manufactured Landscapes has the vibe of an a vanity project funded by the artist to help sell his already very marketable product to a larger audience.

So...why do I hate on this film? Is it because E.B. is so popular and successful? Maybe. But I think there is this feeling of liberation that comes when you see a person so deeply invested in their art, instilling their photographs with all the weirdness they have in themselves, and just being honest about it all and mixing it all up together. E.B. didn't have that...he seemed so detached, like he could have been doing any number of things successfully for a living but just happened to choose photography. Well...what's the problem with that?
I think it just comes down to a revelation about my personal taste. I like looking at weird photographs done by unusual people. Is that O.K. to admit?


db said...

Thanks for the review.

I was introduced to the 'Manufactured Landscapes' book over the weekend, and loved seeing his work. I must have had my head under a box for the last year or two.

I was reading your comments and first wondered if you were reacting against his cool (as in reserved) personality.. I think a quiet normal person can sometimes direct all of their passion into their product instead of displaying it in their demeanor.

But then hearing about the Al Gore and advertorial stuff is certainly a downer. It's a mistake to turn the film into a polemic or a sales pitch. Nobody likes being told what to think and powerful pictures can speak for themselves.

Timothy Archibald said...

Yah...he was very normal, but his images are the thing, of course, not for me but other people love his work, so it is not like they are wrong or something.
I dunno. I just get the feeling that his work is something we are "supposed" to like, and thus people do like it.
The poster image, of the factory workers all dressed in yellow is super, but it really just looks cool. It's not important, or commenting on man vs nature, or anything like that, it just looks cool with all the yellow. Why not just admit that, why try to make it seem "important"? Looking cool is enough, for me.

Robert Holmgren said...

Good points Timothy. It's what I dislike about most documentary photography--they make artists into employees of predigested movements. True vision wants to be free of low grade messages.

colin pantall said...

Hi Tim - I like some of his work - the quarries - and other work less so.

But I think the interesting thing here is how much you are affected by seeing him speak - but in a negative way. And how much you were affected by hearing Tiernay Gearnon speak, but in a positive way.

It goes to show that sometimes it is more than just the work that matters (and it partly explains why people are so protective of keeping some imagined mystery about their work).

The best speaker I ever heard was Roger Ballen. He reprised his weird pictures with a thoroughly weird talk which was part lecture/part performance and part common sense (Use the square - you have one less choice to make if you use the square!). I don't know if it made me like his work even more, but it didn't do any harm.

Weird photographs done by unusual people indeed!

Timothy Archibald said...

Yea, I think its just that I am interested in photographers and the process, so if the person seems to have this "purity of intent" and the work seems to come from a real place, I tend to like it...even if it isn't that "great". You know...its the thought that counts, it's what is inside that really matters, all of that stuff you learn as a kid.
Ballen...obviously I like his work, but I did read an artist statement by him for a show here at Berkeley, and it almost ruined the work for me, he was so defensive and guarded. So...I'd love to hear him speak.

bob said...

The poster image is indeed cool. But I'd also argue that its a successful image as well. I think it does a good job conveying the scale, in terms of both people and architecture, of manufacturing in China. Who knew we needed so many irons?

Darrell Eager said...

Thanks, just put it in my Netflix queue.

Tom White said...

I too am a little perturbed at Burtynsky's apparant lack of passion and his reluctance to openly condemn the practices he is photographing. Perhaps the politics would interfere with his print sales. I don't know. Maybe he does really care but keeps his emotions in check. His manner certainly helped him persuade the Chinese to let him photograph those coal fields. Regardless, I thought the documentary was a telling look at some of those manufacturing processes we all know about but rarely get to see - I'm thinking of the girl assembling switches at lightening speed and the village 'recycling' centres. Burtynsky himself actually seems incidental in this documentary. I left feeling like it wasn't really about him or his practices at all. As a documentary about a photographer it fails, as a documentary about manufactured landscapes I think it hits the spot.

Joerg Colberg said...

It sounds like what you really want is to be entertained. I guess as an entertainer Burtynsky is not very exciting. But then maybe watching the documentary and expecting entertainment is the wrong approach.

My only complaint about the movie is the editing. They could have cut out 30 minutes and delivered the same contents.

Anonymous said...

Colin hit the nail on the head.

Mystery is a good thing.
Everytime I have ever met a photographer that I admired, I immediately lost interest and realized they were just as big of a loser as I am. Let's keep the mystery in the still work, by keeping the moving pictures out of it.

Washington DC Photographer said...

I come from a photojournalistic background, and as such, it was hard to hear that Burtynsky set up some of his shots (including the DVD cover shot, in which he had trucks moved and the people lined up just so), something he freely admitted when I saw him give a talk at the Corcoran a few months ago. While I understand the differences between fine art photography and documentary photography, something about this approach still rubs me the wrong way. With that said, I do like many of his images, especially his work around the Three Gorges project.

William Anthony said...

I love large format. So I rented this after seeing his quarry series and his TED conference lecture. I had some of the same reactions as other commenters.

I guess, in regards to his body of work, it's remarkable. But not too different from Gursky's or Moore's stuff—technically speaking. So what is it that makes his work different, the environmental sustainability theme? Large format landscape ("human" or not) all tends to be of a similar flavor to me after a while. I'm just not sure how one can deviate significantly without getting into huge lighting productions on the scale of Crewdson or even some seasoned architecture shooters.

Are there any examples of LF work out there that's wildly different from the norm? I'd love to see.

I've really taken to LF in the past few years. But am far more interested in it for portraiture than landscape. And even then it's not really a visual aesthetic entirely but more about what it does to the process of taking the picture. (People react very differently to a view camera than other cameras.)

As a documentary, yeah... I agree with Joerg, the pacing was glacial at times. Part of the aesthetic, I know, but I am not sure how many people could truly watch it start to finish without their finger on the [>>] button.

Joel Carranza said...

I truly enjoyed the glacial pace, the slow pans of stunning visuals. Really amazing and thought provoking as well. It would have really been greet if I could have seen it in a movie theatre.

However, every scene involving EB himself could have been completely removed and it would have been a stronger film. Seeing the photographer stand around and ordering around assistants doesn't contribute anything to the film. His first appearance in the film, a quick clip of a presentation he was giving, dressed in all black with the headset mic, ellicited groans of dismay from the people I watched the movie with.

It would be interesting to know what part EB played in the production of the movie....