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Photo Synthesis

Oxford Tire Pile #8, Westley, California

April 16, 2006|Colin Westerbeck

1999

*

Writing about a picture of an almond grove last Sunday, I mentioned that a canyon full of tires was the subject photographers Virginia Beahan and Laura McPhee had originally set out to document. This week's photograph is of the site they had been searching for. In fact, the tip that Edward Burtynsky was following came from the same source--McPhee's father, John, whose 1997 book "Irons in the Fire" describes this place.

A Canadian, Burtynsky says he was attracted to such industrial blight, which he has photographed worldwide, because "I was born in a country with a small population and a vast hinterland." Although his subjects have ranged from this mountain of tires to rivers of molten nickel tailings, he resists letting his images become polemical. He walks a path between art and propaganda as narrow and precarious as the one you see here between two unstable cliffs of rubber scree.

In 1997, when the tires that Oxford had begun dumping near Westley in the 1950s numbered 6 million, the state stepped in to dispose of them. Shortly after Burtynsky photographed Oxford #8, lightning started a fire in the pile that took weeks to extinguish.

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