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Unnatural Wonders

Edward Burtynsky’s industrial landscapes are at once beautiful and horrible.

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Courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum  

You’ll likely think about Gulf hurricanes and oil prices as you walk through the Brooklyn Museum’s survey of Edward Burtynsky. Inspired by nineteenth-century landscape photographers like Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan—“part chemists and part pioneers,” as he’s said—Burtynsky totes his large-format camera to sites where activities like mining and oil refining alter the earth with strangely elegant violence. In his “Shipbreaking” series, seen in 2002 at Charles Cowles, the torn-apart hulls of oil tankers being scrapped in Bangladesh resemble toppled Richard Serra sculptures; the fiery orange river of his “Nickel Tailings” could almost pass for an apocalyptic canvas by the British artist John Martin. The Brooklyn show will include new photographs from the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, where the world’s biggest dig has already displaced millions of Chinese citizens. Thus far, Burtynsky has refused to take sides in the conflict of nature vs. industry, saying he’s just making an aesthetic statement. “It’s not a question of whether we are going to stop consuming . . . We must learn to be more conscientious custodians of the resources that we have been given,” he has said. But like his predecessor Watkins, whose shots of the Yosemite Valley helped inspire the national-park movement, Burtynsky may find that his camera leaves its own imprint on the earth.

Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky
Brooklyn Museum, October 7 through January 15.
also, photographs at the Charles Cowles Gallery
October 6 through November 5.


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