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His aim is true

Edward Burtynsky's photos have beauty, classic style and an edge.

May 25, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

San Diego — If Ansel Adams were alive today, he might be photographing toxic waste dumps rather than Yosemite, or landfills stuffed with disposable diapers instead of the Sierra Nevada mountains dusted with snow. Now that the industrial poisoning of land, sea and sky operates full-tilt to general public indifference, the idea of lush photographs that portray the American landscape as majestic and sublime would resonate on a scale somewhere between nostalgic and cynical. "Clear skies" and "healthy forests" meant something different to Adams than they do today.

For evidence, consider the arresting landscape photographs of Edward Burtynsky. They are certainly infused with the aura of an epic. Panoramic vistas, dramatic in scope and size, mine a history that reaches back through celebrated 20th century figures like Adams to late 19th century masters of the genre -- especially the great chroniclers of human intervention in the American West, Timothy O'Sullivan and Carleton Watkins.

And yet there is nothing sentimental about these pictures. Burtynsky's grand pictorial epics are not what they might seem to be at first glance. Forget heroism; ambivalence abounds. Horror -- an often forgotten ingredient of the sublime -- creeps in around the edges. Awesome exaltation is not in the cards.

The Canadian photographer, whose work is the subject of an exceptional survey exhibition at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego's Balboa Park, is not atavistic. He isn't remaking for new audiences an established, out-of-date genre of romanticized landscapes. Instead he goes for something more complex -- and more true.

The show presents 48 selections from six series made during the last 20 years. Burtynsky has photographed railroads, mines, stone quarries, industrial dumps (or urban mines, as he calls them), oil fields and "ship-breaking," the laborious process of dismantling enormous tankers. What these diverse subjects share is a focus on the clash between nature and industry. If O'Sullivan and Watkins chronicled those tensions during the early, more tentative and exploratory decades of the Industrial Age, Burtynsky charts them from a grimmer postindustrial vantage.

Burtynsky's landscapes are opulent and sensual, and his rigorous attention to planar surfaces and compositional geometry creates a monumental quality. It is matched by the large size of the photographs (many are 40 by 50 inches). The approach can make an open-pit coalmine seem like the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, and the entry to a railroad tunnel in the wilderness of British Columbia recall the ancient Egyptian tomb of Queen Hatsepshut. The rusting hulks of ocean-going tankers run aground on the misty shore in Bangladesh for dismantling are endowed with austere, dignified grandeur -- not unlike architect Louis Kahn's celebrated government buildings in Dhaka, the otherwise impoverished country's capital.

But the balanced classicism of Burtynsky's compositional style is also misleading. Stability and timelessness do not result. Nor does the comfortable reassurance that comes with them.

On the contrary, the power of these photographs derives from an inescapable, understated sense of fragility -- of nature at the brink of upheaval or ruin. Human intervention in the landscape emerges as a complicated jumble of ingenuity and rapacity. Love alternates with lust. Often you sense a breaking point being reached.

The earliest pictures are of "rail cuts" -- the wilderness terrain in the Canadian Rockies where cliffs and mountainsides have been sheared to accommodate railroad tracks. Each frame is filled with an imposing wall of stone, sometimes dotted with timber. Typically the rich color is all grays, greens, gold and browns, mottled with white.

In each, a thin, almost severe line cuts across the bottom quarter of the otherwise dappled image. Sometimes a train chugs along these tracks -- an Industrial Age powerhouse rendered puny and toy-like by the imposing context. In one, sheds have been built over the tracks in certain spots to divert landslides. In another, dead trees have tumbled down the face of the mountain.

In all of them the railroad track or the train itself seems to cling for dear life to the edge of the flattened earth, while above it the looming mountain is poised to swallow the incursion whole. Human movement skitters horizontally across your field of vision, while nature's heavenly beauty enacts a vertical tug of war with the threat of a hellish ordeal. The drama is palpable.

It's as if humanity is tiptoeing by, awed by the splendor of the world yet fearful of awakening a slumbering ogre. The "Railcuts" series, which marked the beginning of Burtynsky's mature work (he's now 50), remains among the artist's finest achievements. It was begun in 1985, and it seems more than coincidental that Adams had died a year before -- and with him an aesthetic no longer sustainable.

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