Art and Environment: Manufacturing Landscapes, featuring photographer Edward Burtynsky

By Daniel Garrett

Manufacturing Landscapes, featuring photographer Edward Burtynsky
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
Produced by Foundry Films and Mercury Films, 2006
(Distributed by Zeitgeist Films)

John James Audubon may have been a naturalist and a painter, but it does seem all that often that one gets to contemplate both art and environmental issues, as with Manufacturing Landscapes, a film that presents the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who focuses on nature and how it has been transformed by industrial use, producing a different landscape, often one of devastation, yet one in which an unexpected beauty can be found.  The photographer, who feels implicated in the exploitation of industry for the photographic tools that he uses and for the transportation that allows him to travel, displays talent for color, contrast, form, line, and mood; and with skill and thought, research and preparation, he produces gorgeous pictures of terrible stuff.  His thematic concern has been the extractive industries, the mining for coal and oil, and he has followed also how metals are recycled and the computer industry.  The film director Jennifer Baichwal follows him as he does his work in China and Bangladesh; and we watch Burtynsky take test images then frame the final image he wants, before the director draws back to show us the context for that image, the surrounding land, the moving people—and then we see gallery goers examining the finished photographs, trying to make sense of them.

The film opens with scenes of a modern factory, its yellow-jacketed workers behind machines, their individuality blurred by the work and their clothing.  When they take a break, one of the supervisors reprimands his team for not properly labeling and separating faulty items.  Material comes from around the world, and the products are assembled in the once agricultural and increasingly urban China, which requires great energy for its growing productions.  (The Three Gorges Dam, thus far the world’s largest dam, was created to prevent floods, generate electricity, and facilitate transportation.)  The factory work we observe is, at once, dull, intricate, tedious, and impressive; and we watch trying to identify what exactly is being made—it seems the mass production of irons for pressing clothes.  We see the junkyards from which used metal is retrieved for recycling.  We see the computers taken apart for metal and parts, leaving toxic remains, poisoning the drinking water.  The garbage is disgusting and frightening.  Another company, its workers dressed in blue uniforms, makes electrical products, particularly breakers, that are sold in more than sixty countries; and we hear how the employees are proud of efficiency and sales, though there seems little concern for environmental or health consequences.  In a Bangladesh ship-breaking yard, where parts are salvaged, men chant as they work, some in traditional dress (a kind of sarong), and we are told that the work is hard and dangerous and the workers young.  Some grow too old and sick to do the work.

As a photographer Edward Burtynsky has found a way to share his experience and knowledge of environmental change and also to create genuinely aesthetic work.  The film by Jennifer Baichwal tells some of the stories behind that work.  The photographs are worth seeing for themselves, but Burtynsky is a particularly thoughtful artist, and Baichwal an imaginative but restrained filmmaker.  The film increases the viewer’s awareness, and asks us to make choices knowing the consequences.

Fields of growing fruits and vegetables have an orderly beauty that bleached, deforested, filthy, and poisoned industrial sites do not have, but, apparently, for a country like China, agriculture does not produce the wealth that modern industry does.  It may be ironic that food is more necessary than a lot of expensive machinery, but does not produce great wealth.  What is to be done?  It is hard to believe that developing countries, such as China and India, will stall their development for the niceties of protecting the environment: Britain and the United States did not.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  The commentary on art above originally appeared on the pages of his internet log The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker.