Edward Burtynsky is a legendary Canadian fine art photographer who specializes in chronicling the extraction and destruction of the earth and it’s minerals, mines and more. His images bring a painterly beauty to the banal.
Ken Weingart: You grew up in Toronto. How was that?
Edward Burtynsky: I grew up across Lake Ontario, literally opposite to Toronto, in a city called St. Catharines. As a kid growing up, I would always see the towers that were there. There was only half a dozen at the time. When I was 20, I decided I wanted to pursue a career in art and photography. In 1975 photography was just beginning as an art form. In terms of market traction, people were just beginning to see it in league with painting and sculptor. It was an exciting time. There were few photographers at the time making it as artists.
There were a few doing ok, but they were teaching and doing their art. There were not many that were just making a living on their art.
Today, there’s a lot, there’s many. It’s considered one of the more interesting art forms, and it’s still emerging. It’s still finding new ways and discoveries. It’s really come a long way. And now it’s seen as one of the more exciting mediums in contemporary art. But it wasn’t always the case.
Yet photographs still don’t sell as much as paintings or sculptures correct?
I think paintings still have a unique aspect to them. There are one or two paintings for artists that are considered the most desirable. You have a cascading value system from that. A painter might have 15 or 20 paintings everybody wants. You think of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and there’s only one. They have that one which is considered unique and so their value becomes extraordinary. Whereas, we as photographers, are like printmakers and work in the world of multiples. So I think it’s the multiples that hold back photographs from having extraordinary prices. But it’s interesting to note that it’s more democratic in that more people can access these prints.
And there is the other factor that people perceive the painter took longer to make that one painting?
I don’t think the time issue is as valuable as it used to be. It’s more about concept and visuals, and how you fit in — or what we might call in a post-modern world, how that work relates to what’s happening in the world. I think that creates a value in the artists and their work. I don’t think collectors are weighing how much time it takes to make. Value is a very interesting conversation. I think there are all types of markets, and the art market is probably the least understood, and suffers from the greatest amount of insider trading. You can’t even imagine. It’s quite an unregulated free for all. You can create value out of thin air, and it will disappear into thin air.
You have a Ukrainian background?
Yes, my parents were both Ukrainian.
And you still live in Canada?
Yes, I do. I happen to like it a lot more right now. Currently, with America, I think there is a lot of confusion happening here that needs to be sorted out. Yeah, I’m being too kind. But I think Canada is a great place where the conversations are really interesting, and the social relationships very healthy.
It’s pro immigrant?
It’s pro immigrant, pro integration, pro social services, and pro universal healthcare. And we are really pushing towards better access to education and housing. So, we’re working on big social issues in a way that are more collaborative. We also have a deep realization of the tragedies that happened with the indigenous people of Canada. We’ve gone through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The reports coming out have been very bad. We’re trying to deal with the indigenous cultures, go back in there, clean up the water and fund them properly and improve their education and health. I think that’s long overdue. We are one of the last great democracies that aren’t really being challenged right now. There’s certainly Scandinavia as well, but the EU, Britain, and U.S., have all been overtaken by this populist thing.
People don’t know about Canada. It’s so big. People know as much about Scandinavia.
Correct, and we are right next door, and we are America’s biggest trading partner.
Back to your beginning as an artist — you were 22 when you started?
Yes, and I started working professionally as an artist right away — applying for grants. My first exhibition was in 1982.
You had a BFA?
I received a Bachelor of Finance from Ryerson University. Ryerson had one of the best photography courses in the country. I was able to learn about the history of photography as well as art, painting, and psychology. It was a great foundation that gave me an overview of sociology and perception. It was a fabulous foundation for a curious mind.
And you have just worked as an artist since then?
I also started a business, a print lab, which is still up and running. It has allowed us to keep a steady income coming in and produce all my own prints from the lab.
What do you use to print?
If it’s up to the 40 inch dimension, I still use photo paper. I write onto Kodak photo paper.
A digital writer. There’s a few of them: Lambda, Lightjet, and Chromira.
It’s not a true film enlarger?
No, it’s not an enlarger. Once I have the negative of the digital file, I can digitize the file, and then it writes onto photo paper. So, it’s a photo paper writer. It’s made here in California, and it’s called Chromira.
That’s the paper?
That’s the machine. And Kodak is the paper. So, that gives me the ability to write onto photo paper. I find when you write on photo paper, from a digital file, there’s a kind of light hitting the emulsion, a sort of dispersion and texture that feels like film and photography. So, I like that. But for my big oversize prints, I’m now using Canon. I tried Epson, Canon, HP, and a few others, and the Canon has given me the nicest rendition.
And the Canon uses?
Film paper vs. inkjet, it’s pretty close?
I’ve managed to get them very close. You would be hard pressed to tell the difference.
So it’s been a big evolution in printing over the years?
I’ve been on the frontline of that world. We started in 1985 with just enlargers and color processors.
Just film. That’s all there was. In 1992 I opened up the digital lab and ran the conventional film side at the same time. Just three years ago we shut down the film enlargers so it’s now just digital. It’s been a big paradigm shift over 30 years, and it’s bloody hard.
Technically or getting clients?
It’s just hard to survive at all. You constantly have to compete with your own company or industry. Let’s say you print with an enlarger one way. But now everybody else is going to digital printers, which means that the guys who use enlargers now see you are developing a technique that’s going to put them out of work. So, in a way it’s kind of a proclamation: I’m finding a new way to do your job.
And you have to always buy new equipment?
Well, no it’s the paradigm shift that is the issue. Let’s say I’m printing one way with an enlarger and a few lenses. And that’s how I do it for 12 years. Now the world is going digital. I’m going to take the enlarger out of the equation, so everybody who works on enlargers is out of a job, unless they learn how to work in Photoshop. So, that’s what I had to go through. You are literally cannibalizing one for the other, and retraining some people and letting others go in order to keep up with the shift in technology, otherwise you don’t survive.
It’s like treading quicksand?
I call it a dual management problem: managing a sunset industry and managing a sunrise industry. You’re doing a transition. You’re maximizing your profit down to nothing on your sunset industry, and trying to make profits in something that’s almost impossible because it’s so expensive. And on the sunrise industry you are taking profits from your sunset industry, and investing. So during a paradigm shift it’s very hard to be profitable because everything you make you have to invest in the new thing that’s coming.
Your clients are Canadians or Americans, or from all over?
Yes, London and Europe, but mostly local Canadians, as well as clients in New York and Seattle. The non-locals will often come down for a week or two and do a portfolio. The people we employ are sought out printers.
What originally attracted you to industrial landscapes? What inspired you?
By 1981 I started shooting mines, never thinking of them as a subject. It was kind of a curiosity. The back cover of my book Essential Elements, from 1981, was shot as an abstract expressionism — the color feel, pallet. I was looking at landscape, and trying to compose with a large frame camera with tightly compressed information. I wasn’t doing landscapes, but I was using landscapes to find a form that I like to work with. I kept trying to hone done to how a painter would look at the blank canvas and say, how do I fill in via my piece of 4×5 film.
Most photographers go somewhere, and they see something and shoot it. You have your vision, and then you find where you can go get that vision?
It’s like a blank canvas. I’m trying to treat it like a canvas. What time of the year is it? Do I have to be there? What kinds of things am I looking for? That was a real interesting period of training my eye and ideas. It was about having an idea, and then spending a lot of time in the world, as a sculptor would use a ball of clay and use reality to turn it into something.
You have the idea before you find the scene?
Yeah, I always work from the idea to the scene.
Your book Essential Elements is a compendium?
My whole career.
And you were a miner?
Yeah, I was a gold miner, and I worked in factories — Ford and GM.
These were your day jobs before you fully became a photographer?
My father died when I was fifteen. My mother had zero money. And I did two years at secondary school and college. And then I went to do a four-year program. The only way I could breakthrough was to fund myself. My summer jobs were whatever paid the most. Mining and factory jobs paid really well. I worked labor and heavy-duty jobs that paid the most. I was a big guy, so they would happily hire me, and I took direction well.
That started the fascination of mines and quarries?
Yes. And then I recognized that there is this whole world that we become totally disconnected from. The camera is this fantastic vehicle to reconnect us with that world. When I started to think along those lines back in the early 1980s, I realized that this idea is big enough to spend the rest of my life doing it, and it’s inexhaustible. So, it’s reconnecting us to the world that produces the life that we have.
Would you say you’re trying to find beauty where most people don’t see it?
Well, I’m not looking for beauty. I’m looking with the same eye trained on what I apply to everything else I do. So, you can call it beauty or visual compelling images.
Would you say you’re a painter in that way?
I started painting before I took up the camera. From when I was seven, I did oil paintings and landscapes. I just thought the camera was quicker. It was like painting, which I love.
I thought this is a better way to do it. As a kid, I got a camera at eleven. I ran around with this 35-millimeter camera. Unlike most kids, I was taking pictures and trying to understand what I was looking at in the three-dimensional conceptual world. I was always taking pictures trying to understand the relationship between seeing something in the real world, and flattening it onto a two-dimensional surface. I’m using the real world as a painter would use painting or a sculptor would use clay.
You have been shooting 4×5 and 8×10, but you are mostly digital now?
I’m pretty much all digital now.
And what is your preferred camera?
Up until a week ago, it was a 60 megapixel Hasselblad. I just received the 100 megapixel.
What’s the model?
Which is the back?
Yes, a 100 megapixel back.
Like Phase One?
No, that’s Hasselblad.
Hasselblad and Phase used to work together. And then Hasselblad decided to make their own back. And Phase went and made a deal with Mamiya.
Hasselblad was using Phase’s back?
At one point. And then they decided to make their own back.
And they still do?
They do their own back. But Phase wouldn’t work with them once they decided to do their own back.
But you mentioned Mamiya.
Phase went to Mamiya for the body. Phase does the back. And Mamiya does the body.
The IQ 100 is…
The 100-megapixel version.
Just the back?
That’s just the back.
If you want to shoot then, you’re going to get Mamiya or something that works with it. Have you tried those?
They’re good. I like the Hasselblad.
They’re just as good?
Just as good. In certain cases, maybe better. I like the Hasselblad for particular characteristics and how it handles the files because I always shot with negative film. Hasselblad ended up buying the Dutch company Imacon. All of their color tables they gave to Hasselblad which had the color that I like. I found the colors with Phase were more commercial. It felt like chrome. I like the softer world of the color negative —that negative to print feel.
Is that in the body or in the back?
That’s in the software firmware.
Right. And possibly something with the lenses surely contributes.
It’s propriety Hasselblad?
It’s all their software for color management.
Imacon embedded software I think.
Which you then put in your computer?
And it interprets the files.
It’s the software inside the camera?
And in addition to that, you have the software in the computer?
That’s right. They all work together. But it’s that relationship. It’s all the color tables.
Can you mix one camera and then use a different software?
But people generally keep it all in one ecosystem?
Yes, it’s like a painter. Do you paint oils or acrylics? Do you like linen? Do you like cotton? You eventually, as a painter, will find all those things that give you what you want. It’s the same thing I’m doing.
You just upgraded?
Yes, a week ago. I haven’t shot anything with it yet.
It’s from what again to what?
60 megapixel to 100.
Well, in terms of data, it’s sixty percent more data. Now with the 100, it’s like working with an 8×10 film camera.
You were matching 4×5 quality up till now?
What I’m doing now is beyond 4×5 with the 60 megapixel. I would say the 60 put me in a 5×7 format, and the 100 will bring me to 8×10.
Do you have any issues with dynamic range? Why do you think people complain about the dynamic range with digital?
I haven’t got any complaints. The thing about Hasselblad, and their files, is that they’re 16 bit files. So, there’s a lot of color depth in them. That’s where they get really big flat files.
Detail in the blacks is good?
Every pixel is 16 bit so that’s a lot of detail. Every pixel can produce millions and millions of color. So it’s capable of great color fidelity and subtlety.
You have been all digital for how long now?
And it’s been liberating?
There was just so much crap. And because I travel a lot, every time I hit security with my 4×5, they want to open up the exposed film. And your flight’s leaving, and the stress of flying with film and going through 14 different security checks in places like Bangladesh or whatever. So, you’re just constantly doing battle.
And if you climb a mountain, it must be quite cumbersome with the large format.
Believe me, I love 4×5 and 8×10. There’s a real loss because of the ritual and slowness it brings. It’s like the slow food movement. By the time you get a tripod out and get your focus, framing, and exposure correct, you’re 20 minutes into it before you have your first shot.
I can have my Hasselblad out on a tripod and be shooting in minute. And then you have to make sure you have the film properly loaded. You have to make sure your film doesn’t get too hot. You have to get it back through the borders to have to it processed. So, it’s a real discipline and a commitment to the materials.
And you don’t really know that you have the shot, even after you’re back from your trip — until you have the film in your hands. So, there’s a real mastery of materials and a control. And also, if I didn’t get the contrast right, if the light was too flat, if there was anything imperfect on the film, then I’d have a problem with the print. I could only print film that had the perfect conditions, to make a great print.
And you were shooting print film?
Print film, Portra.
So, there’s some latitude.
There isn’t latitude. If it’s contrasty, and the shadows are too deep, then there’s nothing.
Yes, the feel of the light. You can fudge a lot of stuff but you can’t fudge the feel of the light. If it feels too contrasty or if it’s too flat you can’t fix it.
With all that said, do you think you may go back to film occasionally?
Now that I have a digital camera that’s as good as an 8×10, probably not. And the films available are much more limited. I still have all the film processing equipment. My daughter is buying a film camera because she thinks that it’s coming back, and this is the coolest thing. She’s trying to convince me today that I should go back to film and be cool. Be a hipster, Dad.
She’s going to get a 35mm?
Yes, she wants a Pentax K1000 — something I had when I was a kid.
How do you decide on the size of prints you want? And why do you prefer C prints?
C prints go back to the Premier printer I told you about. That’s going from your digital file though a digital writer onto a photo paper. It’s still the same chemistry that you had when you got your R prints from way back then. My prints are 48” inches on color paper. Beyond that, I go digital onto Inkjet.
You have worked a lot in China. Is that one of your favorite countries to visit?
Then how did you choose China?
Again, it’s through an idea and thinking, well where? The idea for China began a whole process in which I was interested in photographing a big dam. The Three Gorges Dam was the biggest dam by a factor of two. They’re building a 27,000-megawatt dam in China —the Three Gorges Dam. I went there in 2002, 2003, and 2004. It took 20 years of continuous pouring. They poured concrete for 20 years to build that dam. It’s the biggest by a long shot. So, I went to China because I wanted to do that, and that was the place to go.
And you got more out of China than the dam?
And then I started seeing China. Once I figured out how to work in China, I started thinking, there’s a lot more going on: urban expansion, factories, and the whole transformation of their landscape. So, I just kept going. And I’ve been back maybe 14 times.
Was it harder or easier years ago?
When I went, it was hard to get in. But once I got in, it was pretty easy to run around and do whatever I wanted. Now they are a little bit more suspicious. They think, just why you want to shoot that?
Before they knew they were fascinating, now they don’t get it.
It’s just everybody is more paranoid. There’s a general paranoia that exists everywhere. So, everybody is like, why? Why are you’re looking at infrastructure? Why are you photographing our infrastructure?
And China has become more of a military power.
And there’s just more fear. Actually, I find photographing American infrastructure far more difficult.
The same suspicions?
It’s, we don’t want anybody seeing this. I pull out Google Maps and say; everything is here on the map. If I was a terrorist, I can just go Google Maps. They don’t need my photographs. And they go, oh we know that, but we just don’t want to encourage it. As a photographer it’s getting more difficult because the world is getting more paranoid.
What was Lagos, Nigeria like, and how long were you there?
I was there two weeks. It was a challenging time. It was really difficult to work there.
After reading the New Yorker article, I can’t really imagine what you went through and what it was like.
But at the same time, it’s not always holy cow exciting. You’re sitting there a lot of times just trying to get something done, and somebody is always stopping you. You’re just sitting there, and there’s a deadlock for days on end. So, you can’t move forward. And you try to work around it.
What’s an example of someone just irrationally trying to stop you?
There’s always something — like what’s in it for me? Why should I let you do it? You have to hit the right authorities. Oftentimes, the first answer I get whenever I shoot anything is no. I want to shoot the dam. No. I want to shoot this. No. I start with no all the time.
People think if this goes wrong, I can get into a lot of trouble. And if this goes right, what’s in it for me? Oftentimes, it’s just about what is in it for the person approving, because if they approve it and it goes wrong, they have to deal with the authorities.
You have to soften their fears. If you look at my work, my work has never been about indicting industries or countries. I don’t go in as a journalist with an agenda. I don’t go in with a didactic proposal to point out what’s wrong with the way this country is doing something. So I have to work through all those fears that they have show my intention is that I’m not deceiving them, and I’m not selling them out, and getting them into trouble later.
As an artist, I sit in this very carefully crafted position that I don’t go after the people who have let me into those places, and say, you’re a bad actor, you’re a bad player, and you shouldn’t be doing that. If it isn’t Shell or BP taking their oil, it would be company A, B, or C. Somebody is going to be doing it. So, it doesn’t matter. It’s not really the company. It’s what we allow the company to do collectively, and the fact that we’re collectively implicated in all of this.
Did you use drones on the Nigeria trip?
There is one drone shot, but mostly it was from helicopters.
And you paid $2.00 a minute?
$2.00 a second. The only way I can rent a helicopter is to go in, which takes about 45 minutes, and I have maybe 40 minutes above the subject, and then I have to go back because we only have two hours of fuel. The problem when I went to Nigeria is that it was all oil-based companies. At first, no helicopter company wanted to fly me as a photographer for fear that I would do something that would piss off their client, which was Shell. So, if I do something and piss off Shell, Shell can say who got him out there? Who let him in there? And then they find out that the helicopter company was complicit.
That’s why it’s so expensive?
It’s expensive because they only work with oil companies.
Oil companies and fine art photographers, and they don’t adjust the price.
I’m probably the only fine art photographer that ever came in.
And they don’t give you the student price?
It was $10.000 U.S. per hour.
I was doing the math when I was up there, because it takes 40 minutes to get there. And I’m thinking, it’s going to cost me like… $15,000 just to get in front of the subject before I start shooting.
And then another $15,000…
Yeah, and so, it was my most expensive shoot.
You don’t do it everyday. I was going to ask also, if you are interested in teaching?
I have done a little bit here and there. I may do more…
Lecturing at universities.
As a permanent professor?
No, but I’ve been asked a lot of times.
It’s not your thing?
I don’t have time. I’m making films. I’m doing big projects. I’m running a company still. So, between my entrepreneurial jobs where I run the lab, (and I have a staff of 30 in the lab), and working in new technologies, I’m actually far more interested in practice than in teaching. Maybe in a few years — if I feel like slowing down — but not now.
You have something coming up called Anthropocene?
That’s the newest project I’m working on, which is about Africa and oil. I’m looking at how we as humans are shifting the planet into the next geological age called the Anthropocene. We’ve have the atmosphere building up CO2 and other aerosols. We also have a situation where a lot of deforestation is changing the landscape. We have a situation in the oceans where acidification, heating, and overfishing is happening and coral is dying off.
This fascinates you: the plunder and decay of the planet?
Look at our relationship to nature and how we use nature as a cupboard to just take what we need. We’re doing that at a level that’s unsustainable. But we’ve always gone to nature as part of the supply chain. Every molecule we have comes from nature. There is no other place. So, to me, it’s our relationship.
No one shows this extraction.
I know. So, I’m using art to reveal. Every picture speaks about either the material that’s been redeployed, like in cities or buildings, or where it originates or being converted from — the factories. But if you look at all my work, it’s always pivoting from that relationship.
How much do you care about legacy and being remembered?
I do think of that. I’m leaving a huge body of work and an estate. And I have daughters. So, I do care about making or organizing my work in a way that makes sense and that is understandable. I have a fairly organized studio and an estate that I think is rational versus just a mess. A lot of others just have a mess. So, I care enough about my legacy in that it takes care of my estate in a fairly succinct way. Whether history remembers me or not, I mean I just do the best I can. I think what interests me as a human being is living a meaningful life. Self-actualization is at the top. I come up with ideas and then execute them. And I think that’s the real privilege in life. I take it as a privilege; I don’t take it for granted. I work as hard as I ever have.
You don’t ever lean back and say, “Oh, I got it done. It’s over now.”
How was the Nigeria experience versus some of the other countries you have ventured to?
Well Nigeria is scary as shit, whereas Bangladesh was never scary. People were really friendly in Bangladesh. In Nigeria, you had to be careful.
Nigeria was scary for what? Kidnapping?
I heard that.
People kidnap, because you’re worth about 250k. There’s a price. You can actually buy kidnapping insurance.
You had that?
No, I looked at it, but I didn’t buy it. It would have cost $2,000. If you’re a backpacker with a grubby beard, and dreads, I don’t think they will be thinking, oh I can get $250,000 from you. But if you’re a director, and there’s drones and equipment, and you have an entourage, they might see you as someone of value. You have to be careful. For pilots, you’re always in a compound. You’re never allowed to go out by yourself on the streets in Nigeria because if you get nabbed, the oil company pays. The ransom is $250,000. You give them $250,000, and they let you go. It’s like a deal. That seems to be the number. So I didn’t choose to buy it, but I paid close to $30,000 for security.
Bangladesh was nicer?
Well, the people were friendlier. I mean I’ve worked a lot in Muslim countries that they will give you their shirt off their back. They’re the friendliest people. They will invite you to their house, and give you whatever they’ve got.
You’re “the guest”.
Yes, and they are happy to share their food. So, I have nothing but say but good things about Bangladesh.
Finally, I really enjoyed your series of shooting ships being broken down. That’s a fascinating subject.
Yeah. It was the craziest thing I ever saw.
About the author: Ken Weingart is a award-winning photographer based in Los Angeles and New York. His work had been widely published across the world. You can see his work on his website and read his writing on his blog.
Image credits: Header portrait by Ken Weingart. All other photos by Edward Burtynsky.