Earlier in his career as a photographer and artist, Edward Burtynsky saw the opportunity to dedicate his life’s work to one idea: humanity’s impact on the planet.
In the 1980s, Burtynsky saw the growing sustainability challenges posed by the combination of heavy industry and billions of people.
His work would eventually take him all over the world – and win numerous awards and accolades – as he captures how humanity is reshaping the Earth through resource extraction, urban sprawl and manufacturing. , to name a few.
“I became an industry-wide observer of the human condition — building cities and transportation systems, making clothes, all that stuff,” Burtynsky says. “There is a whole other world that we don’t see.
“I thought the camera was the perfect tool to bring this world into our consciousness.”
Over the years, Burtynsky — who received an honorary degree from the U of T in 2017 and supports the Natural Curiosity environmental education program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s Dr. Jackman Institute of Child Study – has produced several documentaries and photo exhibits on the threat environment.
But he tackles a new medium in his latest show with the Luminato Festival.
In the wake of progress premiered during the festival’s opening weekend on giant screens surrounding Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto. Afterwards, the play will be transformed into a paid indoor immersive experience at the Canadian Opera Company Theater from June 25 to July 17.
Inside the theater, the 22-minute play will be presented on 30-foot screens through images and film. It is produced by Canadian music “super-producer” Bob Ezrin – who helped produce Pink Floyd’s The wall among other classic albums – and features an original score by award-winning composer and sound designer Phil Strong.
There will also be a curated gallery of high-resolution photographs and murals, two augmented reality experiences exploring the impacts and legacy of the internal combustion engine, and a “change station,” where the public will address the question: “What can i do now? ”
Burtynsky wants people to walk away from his work thinking deeply and emotionally about humanity’s brutal impact on the planet.
“The story is a lot about what we do to nature, how our success is driving biodiversity back,” he says. “It’s changing the nature of the oceans – we’re seeing corals dying, fisheries collapsing.”
“We see all kinds of problems – deforestation, desertification, droughts, storms, heat domes. Thirty years ago, you could say that climate change was something that was happening. Now, we can’t sweep that away. It’s on our doorstep.
Burtynsky has gone to great lengths to capture his thought-provoking artwork.
“How it appears, the time of year, the light – all of those things play a really crucial role,” he says. “I will return to a place four or five times under different lights.”
It sometimes takes him years to get to a place. When he and his team wanted to travel to Norilsk in the Russian High Arctic – the location of the world’s top producer of nickel and palladium – they were met with strong opposition.
“It’s been called one of the most polluted cities in the world,” he says. “They said, ‘There’s only one story you want to get into and do, and that’s a pollution story.
“We spent a year convincing them otherwise. We walked in, but they still didn’t trust us. We were constantly detained and taken to immigration or police offices.
Burtynsky was always determined to find a way in.
“I have always remained faithful to my weapons. Our work is revealing, not accusatory. We want to show the world these things on a grand scale,” he says.
When he’s not filming from the ground, Burtynsky rides in a helicopter to capture breathtaking landscapes at altitude. Through decades of experience, he’s learned to work with the buzzing plane – often directing the pilot via his headset to find the right position to shoot.
“I try to give the impression that I have my old-fashioned camera on a tripod, but the reality is that I’m bouncing around in a helicopter, filming at high shutter speeds, trying to compose on the move. At the end of the day, I feel like it was a stable, thoughtful, very composed plan.
For an artist who has spent 40 years of his career highlighting the myriad ways humanity has negatively impacted the planet, he remains optimistic.
“[Climate change] seems to be at the top of everyone’s agenda,” he says. “The U of T is doing a great job with geothermal energy and moving away from fossil fuels in its funds.
Burtynsky says he wants people to walk away from his work thinking deeply and emotionally about humanity’s brutal impact on the planet (photo by Jim Panou)
“The high price of gasoline, even if it hurts, will be a big motivation for us to stop gasoline. These changes never come without pain. Once we have the right economic parameters, the change will happen. produced quickly.”
Born in St. Catharines, Ontario, Burtynsky was exposed to industrial spaces early in his life. The General Motors plant in his hometown sparked his interest in capturing the effects of industry.
Some of his many honors include Officer of the Order of Canada, Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts, and eight honorary doctorates – including one from the U of T, which recognized him for his influence on society through to his interest in environmental issues. He also received an Arbor Award from the U of T in 2014 for his involvement with the Dr. Jackman Institute of Child Study, and there is an award in his name that annually honors three educators across Canada for excellence in environmental education.
Burtynsky hopes his new show will resonate with students, in particular.
“I hope this will make the conversation easier. When you touch them emotionally, their mind thinks differently,” he says. “It’s a universal story that begins with nature and ends with nature.”