Beauty or Garbage?

Edward Burtynsky knows what to do with a dump.  He brings it to us photographed with architectural symmetry and precision.  He creates a formal beauty out of garbage.


Burtynsky has made it his life’s work to create images of the imprint that Man leaves on the world. Be it the wounds on the earth created by quarry sites, tire dumping grounds, mines, the oil industry, ships and containers, whatever.  He creates sets of large scale images that bring the carelessness of the human footprint into sharp relief.

But his images of litter and widespread human vandalism are starkly beautiful. Not for him the crass, factual representation of the activist photographer or photojournalist who is unsuccessfully trying to shock us into submission.  Burtynsky approaches these sites as one would approach formal landscape or architectural photography.  He gives beauty to loathsome subject matter leaving us confused.  Is this supposed to be beautiful or dreadful?

Image from series "Quarries" - Edward Burtynsky
Image from series “Quarries” – Edward Burtynsky

As in all successful art, it is this confusion – the subversive effect of not knowing what is real and what is contrived – the tension between beauty and ugliness – that gives his art its power.

How come we see beauty in our own litter? And what other things do we create and consume that we have come to consider beautiful or a sign of Man’s progress and achievement when maybe they are nothing more than part of the endless garbage with which we flood our own environment.

Oil Field - Edward Burtynsky
Oil Field – Edward Burtynsky

Burtynsky’s “Manufacturing” series, is nothing short of frightening. How have we become so inured to the astronomical scale of our consumption habits that we see as normal the massive scale of production portrayed in these images?

These are the questions raised by Burtynsky’s work.  I will never again look at anything simplistically held up as an example of the beauty of Man’s achievement without wondering –  “Is it all garbage?”

Image from "Manufacturing" series - Edward Burtynsky
Image from “Manufacturing” series – Edward Burtynsky