Jonathan Blaustein: I was in New York this past week, and I was able to see both of your exhibitions that are currently on display at Bryce Wolkowitz and Howard Greenberg. It’s such a great lead in to our conversation, and I definitely want to ask some questions about those shows. To give you a bit of backstory, I come to this process as an artist, not a journalist or a professional. I’m one of those people who seems to be faking it until I make it. The goal will be to try to provide some information for the audience, and get a sense of where your head is at, because I think, realistically, everybody who reads the interview will be familiar with your work. So let me just jump right in. I have a lot of specific questions, but from a standpoint of my personal curiosity, I was hoping to start with something really broad. I wanted to know if you could talk a little bit about why you do what you do?

Edward Burtynsky: I have no idea what else I would do. Creating ideas and objects, and being involved in art making, whether it’s in the form of photography, or something else is part of my being. The creative urge feels as if it’s in my DNA. If I’m not creating something, then I feel as if I’m having a slow death.

The “why” of what I do is fairly straightforward, it’s why all artists are compelled to do their work. Most of the artists I know who are successful don’t have a lot of choice. It’s something they simply need to do. That’s as close as I can come to why I do it. I’ve always made things. I’ve always been involved in the arts.

JB: Kandinsky had a great phrase for it that I picked up in grad school. He called it “Inner Necessity.” When I get asked the question, I give a similar answer, but given that you’re so accomplished at what you do, I was curious to hear your take. Anyway, because I got to hear you lecture for 40 minutes at the Art+Environment Conference in Reno, and because I got to see two of your exhibitions in the last four days, my questions are kind of focused on what you’re doing now. We also got to chat in Reno a bit as well, and you mentioned that in 2011, you are now working with “drone helicopters.”

We continued our conversation, but that phrase kind of stuck in my mind. When I mentioned it to other people, everyone had the same reaction, which is, “What? How? Why?” I was hoping you might share a bit about how that process works?

EB: We call them “drones” but I guess it’s kind of a misleading term.

JB: You can see why I got curious. We all have visions of toy airplanes firing guided missiles at bearded dudes in the hinterlands of Pakistan, so I had to ask.

EB: I refer to them as “RC-copters”, remote control helicopters. I’ve always been interested in being able to position my camera at an optimal viewpoint in order to take a good picture.
My response to a subject determines the appropriate distance, angle and time of year. I’ve been working – and scratching my head – in China for almost a decade now. China has no civil aviation. It’s mostly, if you want to get up in the air, you either have to deal with industry, or you’ll have to deal with the military.

For instance, the hydro-electric projects. Up in the regions where they’re putting the dams in, the Chinese use huge Sikorsky helicopters to shuttle men in and out of building sites. These overkill choppers can carry a dozen men and their gear. You can rent one but it’s ridiculously expensive. The only other way to use airspace by helicopter in China is through the military. Getting them on side is a major hassle and again you’re paying buckets of money to use their craft, at their convenience, and it means you’ve got to go right to Beijing and talk to them. The beaurocracy is staggering.

One of the workarounds we were sorting out was to try getting my Hasselblad up in a helicopter without me. The whole process started from the question “How can I stand where I want to stand and shoot from where I want to shoot, in a place where I can’t get up in the air? If I want to take pictures from a lofty perspective in China, or in India – where it’s equally challenging to get chopper space in remote areas – how do I accomplish that?”

With the small RC helicopter I’m able to shoot in isolated areas utilizing the same opportunities that a regular helicopter provides, without having a full-on rig and related expenses. We’ve been successfully doing aerial tests, shooting with the Hasselblad at about 700-800 ft. We can shoot down rock-steady and control the point of view—totally remote.

JB: Do you have a live video feed to tell you when you want to click the shutter? Are you seeing it in real-time?

EB: Yes. I’m watching in real-time, so I have a camera in the eyepiece of the Hasselblad. I have three-way positioning on the camera, so I have all the movements of a tripod head. I’m working with a helicopter operator to say “Freeze it in that spot.” Then I’m working with a guy on the head, and I hold the shutter release. So I’m getting live video feed as I compose from the camera.

JB: Wow.

EB: You can fly as far away from base to the point where you lose visual contact, which is a bad idea with a remote, because you want to be sure to get it back. It’s a lot of expensive equipment.

JB: No doubt. When everyone reads that, they’re going to be mentally tabulating the bill on that equipment. That’s insane. I’m really not a tech-obsessed guy, but that concept, especially with the contemporary context of remote control warfare, I had to ask.

JB: I just saw your two shows in New York. I was fortunate to get a preview of the Dryland Farming series in Reno, but seeing the prints of the new work on the wall at Wolkowitz was kind of astonishing.

I hope you won’t assume flattery here, but I’ve seen a lot of your work through the years. Part of being an artist is just being aware of what’s going on. And I thought the new work was absolutely fantastic. I think people my age are often afraid of the tendency to do your best work early on, and then kind of slowly crater. Seeing something that awesome and invigorating was inspiring. The prints were extraordinary, and hopefully we’ll get this interview up in time for people to go see the show. But they are somewhere in the range of 40″ x 60″, just gigantic images, and they are abstract to the point where they were almost vibrating. The fingers of the Spanish landscape reminded me of little alien fetuses. People familiar with your work will recognize the thumbprint, and yet they were kind of a new aesthetic to me, particularly the color palette. The photographs looked like digital capture to me, as opposed film.

JB: I was wondering if I interpreted that correctly, or if it was just the palette you were using. Have you shifted your process at all to make that work?

EB: They are now shot digitally.

JB: They are…

EB: Yes. I’ve tried every way I can, and film isn’t capable of that quality in aerial work. When I first started shooting from the air in 2003 I took a large format film camera up. I was using my Linhof 4×5 with a rangefinder on it, and ran into a host of problems. One is, because you are in motion, and there’s vibration, so you’re trying to get high shutter speeds. You have to expose at one five-hundredth of a second or better, even with a gyro and a copter pilot trying to steady the craft as best he can. That’s pretty much the fastest speed on the older shutters. To get that speed, you’ve got to expose wide open, and most large format lenses don’t render optimally wide open. In my case F5.6 is wide open, and it’s hard to get the picture sharp at the corners. They really need to be at F16, or better at F22.

JB: These are technical reasons. But the color palette, the aesthetic, certainly on those large prints, it reads as Hyperreal. Which to me kind of grounds it in the 21st Century, and makes them even better. The non-linearity of the land was just shocking, the way the water movement shapes the parcels for farming. Was that a project that you’ve always wanted to do, or was it the kind of thing where you were in Spain, you saw something, and it triggered an idea in your mind?

EB: All my work is research driven. When I started doing this Dryland Farming series, I was already working on the idea of water. I had just finished my Oil project, having spent twelve years, exploring that; at different times I’d go back to it, then do something else, take a year off, think about it, research some more, and go back to it.

I often work in chunks: research and then implementation. When I started looking at water, one of the key things staring me in the face was that, well, I’m not necessarily interested in water as Water per se, because that’s one big subject. We have oceans that cover two-thirds of the planet, and I’m not so interested in that part of the story, but I am interested in human intervention. How do we interact with water, and how do we re-shape and synthesize water into what we want it to be, into the various things that we need it to be.

When I started researching from that perspective things get fascinating, 70% of human water usage is in agriculture. So agriculture becomes a dominant theme within the research, to ask “where is agriculture done in conceptually and visually interesting ways? Where can I find that?”

So I started researching agriculture subjects, working with researchers here at my studio. We’ve looked at everything from California’s Imperial Valley, where they are using the Colorado River with aqueducts; to Dryland farming in the Monegros, Spain, a natural usage of available winter rainwater, where there’s no irrigation at all, so it’s one crop per year. And I was recently photographing near where you live; driving through New Mexico into the Texas panhandle, then flying over and photographing gigantic pivot agriculture systems that are drying out the aquifers.

These are examples of the very different ways in which humans intervene with water, but again, it’s all research driven. I’m looking to find the visual representation of various ideas in the landscape, and then allowing the ideas to push me to the place that needs to be photographed. I’m trying to find the form which best suits an aspect of the research, and for the most part, the best visual description of what we do with water cries for elevation. I need to get up above it to see it from a great height, because it’s often such a vast thing I’m looking for, that the point of view has to be from a bird’s eye view. That’s basically the way I’m developing the project.

JB: It leads to my next question. You talk about oil, you talk about water, you talk about research and planning, and yet sometimes a disaster can make an idea, or the intersection of two ideas, suddenly achievable. At the Howard Greenberg gallery, you had a few images, super-large scale, of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. There was a particular image, I think it was titled “Riptide,” where you could literally see the line between the encroaching Oil/Water, and what was presumably the water not yet polluted, which had a different color. They’re aerial, using copters or planes. One thing I was curious about was, certainly within the photo community, there’s this sense that with each new disaster, there’s a crew of guys, a slew of people sprinting there as fast as they can to be the first to document that particular scenario. That’s not the way you typically work. I wondered what that was like for you on the scene? Did you see any competition of photographers trying to get up in the air first? What it was like for you as an artist to witness the journalistic practice?

EB: I wasn’t necessarily separated, but I wasn’t trying to get my work out in AP or anything like that. That wasn’t my intention.

JB: Clearly. When you see the work, it was almost like it had to be. It fit so perfectly within the through-line of your work.

EB: You’re quite right to pick up on that. I had a foot in both worlds. I just finished up doing a twelve-year project about oil, which is traveling the world until 2013. And I’m three and a half years into a project on water. Almost two years ago, when the Gulf oil spill happened, both of these themes were present in one place. I don’t generally follow disasters or current events in that way. If I am photographing a disaster, it’s a slow, intentional incremental one. It’s not typically where a natural disaster kicked out, or one where something went horribly wrong. In the Macondo well, something went horribly wrong. I generally don’t go after that kind of subject, but in this case it involved the two liquids that we, as humans, engage with on a massive scale, and both were present. That’s something I rarely have a chance to witness, as an image-maker, where two big themes that I’m working with are suddenly come together in one landscape.

“Riptide,” the image you’re talking about, is actually where the water goes out, about eighty miles beyond the Mississippi, where the water streams into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s silted, so there’s a certain opaque tonality to the Mississippi water. The Gulf of Mexico is a clearer, and has an aquamarine-blue appearance. It’s where brackish water meets the salty ocean water of the Gulf. That particular intersection in the photograph is where these two different types of water are actually coalescing and blending together. The oil had found its path into that water too, so it was caught into the confluence of these two waters. The oil is being held in that tide, and that is one of the few places where I was actually able to see the oil. Mostly, no one was seeing it for days and days, because they were using dispersant. Deep down, something like 4000 feet down somewhere, they had a pipe that was blowing dispersant over the oil as it came up, and it was atomizing it. So the oil itself was never surfacing. This was one of the places where an oil mass made it to the surface.

JB: I had a really interesting reaction, standing in front of the print. As much as the world relies on jpegs, there’s really no substitute for the physical experience of being in front of a 40″x 60″ like that. It was one of the most disturbing, beautiful photographs I’d ever seen. It was so luscious and gorgeous, that for the first time as a viewer, I actually felt guilty about appreciating the magnificence of the photograph. It’s not subtle, why you’re seeing what you’re seeing, between the title and the visual. I felt like you took it to the outer edge of how to use the seductive power of beauty to get people paying attention. I don’t know if there’s a question in there, but obviously, you use aesthetics to draw people’s attention to these environmental disasters…

EB: What I’ve often said is that it follows, very much, a state of mind, collectively, that we’re all in. If I had to put a psychological term, on it, it’s that we’re all in a state of cognitive dissonance. In other words, we all know that the collective impacts the earth. You’d have to be pretty out of it to not have some sense that as a species, we’re having a profound effect on our planetary systems, water systems, air systems, the forest, life in the oceans. Everywhere you turn, humans are doing things on a large scale, and Nature is really getting the brunt of it, is being pushed back. So many of us know that this is happening. It’s getting harder to simply enjoy life, and go on, buy another car, fill your tank up with gas, take your favorite vacation down South in the Winter. Whatever it is you do.

Everything now is almost a guilty pleasure. Everything we do has consequence. So we live with the desire on one hand, to live a full life, and the consequence that we’re all having in that collective expression of Capitalism, and Democracy. These are two irreconcilable things. “

Cognitive dissonance” is when you tend to deny anything that contradicts what you want life to be. It’s also called “myside bias.” We accept any information that supports living life as usual, and not having to change our behavior is embraced, and anything that sounds like “Oh, I have to change my behavior if I want to be a good citizen,” we tend to shun. There is a kind of attraction/repulsion, but rather than deal with the repulsion, we tend to try to close it off. I think it’s societal, so in terms of a psychological state, it’s happening on a very big scale.

I think the work itself, that I do, also mirrors that dissonance. On one hand, we’re attracted to the image. The aesthetics are equivalent to the desire that we feel, the beauty we long for, yet once we come to terms with the fact of its subject matter, the content then puts us into a state of realization…”What’s that telling me?” It’s hard to feel good about what you’re seeing, because you know this is a disaster. It’s tragic.

JB: It’s great to hear you say that. I know I stumbled to even formulate a question there, but I’ve seen a lot of photographs in my day, and that sensibility really came across in your work. The use of structural metaphor in your practice, I think, is probably a big part of why you’ve achieved what you have. You used the word mirror, which is a great segue, because I had a question about that. There was some new work up at the Greenberg gallery that I’d never seen before, and I’m assuming most people haven’t seen it either.

You had a mini-exhibition within the gallery called the “Pentimento” portfolio, which were damaged, beaten up, aged-looking, black and white prints from the Bangladesh series. (The project where you photographed the ship yards where they deconstruct aging oil tankers.) I’ve seen those images in color, but these were black and white chromagenic prints, which left me curious.
It seemed like another case of structural metaphor, where the destruction in the print mirrored the destruction of the ships, which are taken apart by hand, piece by piece. Which is then a mirror for the destruction of the environment, with all the oil that seeps back into the water. Given that you’d gone so far out of your way to make a statement with your process, I thought that maybe you could talk about that for a moment. Did you intentionally trash those prints? Was it a digital manipulation?

EB: No, it wasn’t done intentionally, and it wasn’t done with the computer. This was in 2000-2001, so twelve years ago. Basically, what happened in that situation is that I usually shot Polaroid Type 55s to proof, and then colour neg. I was shooting 4×5 and I had to work quickly out there. I did have 8×10 along, but most of my work in Bangladesh was shot on 4×5. I could work faster using my Linhof. I could easily find infinite focus, it was a real extension of my way of seeing, and have the shot done quickly. To ensure that I had the image, I would always shoot a Type 55, and then I would inspect the negative for sharpness to make sure it could go up to 40×50 or 50×60 size. You have inspect those proofing negatives on site with a 10x magnifying loupe if you want to be sure that you’re going to be able to produce the prints back in the lab at home.

I was used to working with 10x loupes and 4×5 negatives, but in Bangladesh, I decided for the first time that I wanted to keep the black and white Polaroid negatives. The one’s just before I shot the final images. You have to place them on site in the sodium sulfite bath until you get back to the hotel at night, then wash them, and then hang them to dry, which I did, religiously every night during that entire shoot. I went there twice, and spent almost a month in that location. And then I went and did all the color negative work, and released the work. But all the Polaroids were in boxes, and I stored them where I keep all my negatives, in a safe at my lab in Toronto. I opened the boxes up three years later, and they were all fused together as a block. Basically because the moisture differential…

JB: The humidity in the air…

EB: Right, the humidity in Bangladesh was so high that they never really dried out, until they were in the safe and then they stuck together. So I kind of ripped them apart, and said, “Yikes, well that went wrong!” At the time I had an intern working for me and asked him to “make contact prints, because they’re kind of interesting. Let’s see what I got.” So contacts were made, and there were about a dozen that I found quite interesting.

When I made the black and white contacts, it seemed like these images were coming from a bygone age. When I was in the field in Bangladesh, I felt like I was getting the vision that Charles Dickens had at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, or Blake’s reference to Satanic Mills, a dark workplace where everyone was in harm’s way. Environmentally, the place was a disaster, and a dangerous. It seemed like I was looking at what Industry might have been like 100 or 150 years ago, before safety regulations were in place, before human life was ever considered as something precious. Back then, if you got killed on a job too bad, you weren’t being careful enough, but that’s exactly how it was there in Bangladesh only ten years ago. If you didn’t survive the day, well, that was your own bad luck.

Ultimately, the actual tears were where one emulsion was transferred to the other emulsion. What you’re seeing is a black hole in the negative is where it’s emulsion came off, and a white area is the emulsion from another negative stuck to it. It was like clarity and resistance, in terms of light. To me, here was the distressed look of the negative of a distressed situation, distressed for the workers, distressed for the environment. The pictures seemed like they were made at beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So for all those reasons, I felt that there was enough aesthetic resonance in those images to release them as a suite—as a small portfolio of ten images with a book.

As for the title of this project Pentimento, it’s a term used painting. Basically, what it means is… let’s say you’re a court painter in the 17th Century, and you, or your patron didn’t like the person to the left side of the composition, or no longer wanted the dog in the foreground, or something like that. The artist would then hide it. It was still there, but painted over. They’ve actually been able to recover paintings under paintings, with technology today, with X-rays and all that. They can see the layering. For me, these photos were very much the image as it existed the minute before I took the final image that I released into the world. These were the images just behind the final rendering. So the idea of the pentimento is the idea of underpainting. The image just on the other side. If you see the book, you’ll see the image that I did, the Type 55 black and white Polaroid field proof, and then flip the page, and you see the colour image that ended up being released into the world—that was based on the field proof.

JB: We started the question with that idea of structural metaphor, and it does come through, the connection between destruction and destruction. When we talk about Climate Change, I went and visited the Greenberg exhibition in the middle of the eye-tooth of Saturday’s Nor’easter in New York. The October 30th snowstorm. It was madness.

Anyway, I recognize that I’ve probably gotten more of your time than I deserve, but I do have a question that I want to ask, because the article I wrote about my experience in Reno was just published today. I know that we discussed it a little bit when we met, but one of the really powerful things for me, as an artist, coming out of that conference, was the sense that we, the artists, the intellectuals, the intelligentsia, call us what you will, were all talking to each other in this modernist fishbowl, while the insanity of Reno, Nevada surrounded us. We keep hearing all this talk, from a political and economic standpoint about the 1% this and the 1% that, and I came away from the experience wondering how we, as artists, might try to expand the tent. To kind of grow the pool of people who do interact with contemporary art, who see what we make. As opposed to just preaching to ourselves.

You’ve worked in film, with “Manufactured Landscapes,” and you mentioned that you’re working on a new one. I know film can often have an audience that transcends. You’re a guy who has put your money where your mouth is for decades, working on political issues. I think many artists of my generation try to stay away from politics whenever possible. (little p) So I suppose the question is, do you often think about expanding the artist’s reach beyond the gallery and museum?

EB: I do try, by virtue of doing films, and I do a fair amount of interview and media work, radio and television, which gets it outside of the museum thing. But I try not to couch it in a political way. I think, particularly in America, politics has become terribly polarized. You’re either left or you’re right. The centralist is kind of dying out.

JB: Binary politics for a binary world. Zeroes and ones.

EB: That division seems to have become entrenched, quite negatively entrenched, because no one is listening to the other side anymore. I think both sides have valid points, but when people stop listening to each other, then it doesn’t lead to the proper outcomes and solutions that we need to have through policies and government actions, and through collective human actions.
That being said, I’m a firm believer that what we do with our environment is ultimately our habitat, and this is what provides us the conditions for life. When things go wrong with the water, when things go wrong with the air, it doesn’t select the left or the right, you know? When consequence comes home to roost, it doesn’t respect religion or politics. It hits us all equally, for the rich and the poor.

I don’t think it’s a political question. It’s more of a human, moral, ethical question. With the knowledge that we have today of what the human impact is, what are we doing about it? Whether you’re left or right, to me, is irrelevant. Do you believe that we’re having an impact? That’s question number one. If you don’t, then obviously you’re not looking at the data properly, because if you look at the data we’re clearly doing something big.

So the first thing is to accept that there’s a problem of collective human action on the planet. As an artist, helping to bring people to at least a point of accepting through visual evidence, of accepting that we can’t help but be having a collective impact on the natural resources of the planet. It’s undeniable that 90% of the large predatory fish have now been fished out of the ocean—the tunas and the sharks. This isn’t hypothetical, this is real. It’s not hypothetical that, like clockwork, we’re adding more carbon dioxide every year. It makes sense. Look at how much fossil fuel we’re burning every year. It can’t not have an effect.

At this point, with the amount of information that’s now in front of us, the whole notion of this issue being a debate is almost laughable. As artists, we can help visually, and intellectually make people understand that, at some point, we have to accept that it is our collective impact that is putting the whole planet in jeopardy. If you have children, how you feel about that problem is really a good place to start. Do you feel robbing your children of a future is something that is ethically and morally acceptable in present day society, with what we know?

JB: I couldn’t agree more. But I was just back in the suburbs of New Jersey, where I was raised, and I had a disturbing conversation with a family member, whom I love very much, but who’s pretty conservative. He admitted that there was no amount of information I could provide, there was no Harvard-backed study, there was no way I would change his mind about Climate Change. There was no information that anyone could present that would counterbalance the information that he gets from Fox News. He admitted that it didn’t matter what I said, it didn’t matter how many scientists believe X or Y or Z. So I love what you said, because I’m coming to believe that myself. That as artists, we have a facility with visual communication.

We have an understanding of metaphor and symbolic language. If we use our skill sets, and we try to present what we believe, and then we try to expand our audience beyond the black-clad gallery-goers in every major urban area… it’s almost incumbent upon us to try.

That was what I came away from Reno with. The consensus in the presentations and the visual evidence of destruction were there. So the next question that I had, and I didn’t hear a lot about this was, what do we do with this knowledge? We, the next generation of artists. So to be able to print your answer to my previous question is really powerful. It’s a question I have, and I hope other artists do as well. Clearly the line between art and propaganda…people have discussed it to death and we don’t want to cross that line. But I think that putting our beliefs and our passions and our knowledge into a visual structure is the very least that we can do. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but we’re presenting this interview for others to read. I’m kind of hoping perhaps to inspire some people to take some risks, and make work that has a higher reach for it’s potential impact.

OK, enough of my blather. This whole time we were speaking, I was addressing you as if you were an American, which you’re not. You’re Canadian. I feel like sometimes Americans, myself included, have a trouble seeing the distinction, other than knowing that every one of you guys lives North of us. I would imagine that someone at your level of success could be based wherever you choose, and you still live in Toronto. So I thought maybe you could talk a bit about the Toronto art scene, and why you’re based there?

EB: I was born in Canada, in St. Catharines, an hour away from here. I think 85% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the American border. We all cluster because it’s warmer. Most of Canada, if you think about it, we have more of a North-South relationship than an East-West trading relationship. We’re the largest trading partners on the planet. Generally speaking, we give you guys a lot of raw natural resources, and you process them, finish them, and sell them back to us at a markup.

JB: Gotta love it. Profit margin makes the world go around.

EB: (laughing) So that’s been our relationship in terms of Economics. But also culturally, American culture seeps over. Another commonwealth country is Australia, but it’s been able to keep a larger self-identity intact, because it’s way out there in the Pacific. But we’re kind of joined at the hip, so we’re always America-watching because as someone once pointed out, when you guys catch a cold, we get pneumonia. In today’s economy, it’s just the reverse. You guys got pneumonia and we just got a cold in terms of our banking systems and the collapse of the real estate market. Our real estate market is actually fine. But as to Toronto, it’s a great staging place. I have family here, and it’s an hour to New York, it’s an hour and twenty minutes to Chicago. I’m into the States at least once a month, sometimes twice. In October, I spent three weeks in the states and one week in Toronto. We know a lot more about the United States than the United States cares to know about us.

JB: I think we all assume that. So tell us what it’s really like? Do you guys have a hopping art scene? Should we encourage all those Northeast Americans to come check out Toronto? For me, it’s an abstraction.

I assume it’s a super-cool city, but I’ve never set foot there.

EB: Oh, I think Toronto has a killer art scene. We have the largest photo festival in the world, called CONTACT. It happens in the month of May. We just put together a Canadian photo prize with Scotiabank, one of the five big banks in Canada. It is for Canadian artists working with photography, and they win $50,000 cash, and they get a Steidl book, and an exhibition produced and shown during the CONTACT festival, and possibly travel as well. It’s a major award that we’ve now developed, and we’re into our second year involved with the bank.

There’s the Toronto International Film Festival, North America’s most popular, and second largest in the world. We also have a sizeable annual International Art Fair in Toronto, which has been a huge success. We’ve got galleries from 15 countries showing there. In terms of selling my photography, Toronto is by far my largest art market in the country, and always has been, for 25-30 years. Whatever I sell here is usually equivalent to all global sales of my work. So there’s a really enthusiastic collector market, and a very enthusiastic art market. And we just rebuilt the Art Gallery of Ontario. Frank Gehry did a whole new renovation on it. I’d say we’ve got a thriving scene here.

JB: I’m glad I asked. And as far as that prize goes, if I start saying “Eh” all the time and profess a love for hockey, can I qualify? Or do I need to show paperwork?

EB: You’re gonna have to show some paperwork.

JB: Damn. Well listen, I had one question that I forgot to ask, so I’ll just say it, but in the NY Times Sunday Magazine a week or so ago, they had an interview with the world’s foremost private submersible designer. These high-end, private, multi-million dollar submarines that are designed like airplanes. As the world’s resources run out, as a submarine designer, he was predicting a mad rush into the seas. Into that 70% of the Earth, for minerals and resources. In the future, everyone’s going to start hacking away at the seabed. So I had visions of you kind of working like that. It would be a natural extension for you to get underwater and start using these fancy toys.

EB: (smiling) I’m familiar with that, and the guys who are innovating all of that. It’s on my radar.

Recommended Posts


  1. Great interview of a fantastic and important photographer. Manufactured Landscapes blew me away, that opening dolly shot gives me the chills. Thanks for letting us learn more about him.

  2. Great interview and magnificent works, many congratulations to you both!

  3. Great interview and even better selection of images. I am already a huge fan of the man, but this makes me want to catch the first plane to NYC and go see his work.

  4. Thanks for the interview. The high altitude shots (shown here, and during Toronto’s Contact Festival last spring) are visually interesting, but a bit tame when compared with the visual power of his main work, on massive industrial / mechanical interactions of humanity and environment. It helps to appreciate the overflight images when you’ve seen how they fit with the other work, though of course they are compelling abstractions by themselves. Large format prints on a quiet day in a gallery is the way to see Burtynsky, but googling will give readers the idea.

  5. I really get lost in Burtynsky’s work and where he is coming from with it. I finally had a chance to visit the Howard Greenberg gallery exhibit and it presented a nice cross-section of the type of wrok he is known for, including the Gulf Oil Spill image discussed above, which is indeed striking printed at such a large size. However, again as discussed above it was the Pentimento images that really won me over there. The description above almost doesn’t do them justice. The prints are beautiful and the ragged, ripped process they underwent underscores the industrial and frayed emotion of the Shipbreaking yard in Bangladesh and the workers there. Definitely worth visiting for those alone. Thanks for the interview Rob and Jonathon.

  6. When Ed says he’s meticulous, he means it. I remember seeing him print his earlier work in Toronto. Work print after work print, LARGE work prints. He’s detail oriented, a smart guy, a nice guy and talented. Can’t knock that.

  7. […] is a  fascinating interview with Burtynsky on A Photo Editor where he talks about his workflow and the challenges of doing what he does. Many […]

Comments are closed for this article!